Who Is Mohamed Morsi, and What Did His Presidency Mean for Egypt's Future?

U.S.-educated, Muslim Brotherhood–approved.
Mohamed Morsi. (Photo: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)
Jan 22, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Scott Johnson is a regular TakePart contributor who has headed Newsweek’s Mexico and Baghdad bureaus and is the author of The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA.

Once a middling technocrat in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—and before that a longtime engineering professor—Mohamed Morsi rode a wave of revolutionary fervor and became Egypt’s first freely elected president in the summer of 2012. It was a landmark moment in the Middle East, and for a time at least, he was its public face.

It didn’t last long, and Morsi’s fall was more precipitous and fraught than his rise. Eleven months into his first term, Egyptians had had enough and took to the streets protesting Morsi’s authoritarianism, his strident Islamist tenor, and his failure to improve their day-to-day lives. The Egyptian military gave Morsi 48 hours to resign and quickly deposed him following massive street demonstrations that left dozens dead. Morsi has been in prison ever since.

Now, after weeks of delay and speculation, Morsi's trial on charges of treason, inciting violence, and murder is set to resume on Feb. 1.

The Morsi trial comes just two weeks after Egyptian voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitution that explicitly calls for more women’s rights and is less directly religious in tone. Harking back to the regime of longtime President Hosni Mubarak, who resigned after widespread demonstrations in early 2011, it also allows the military to select its own leader and try civilians in certain cases.

The “yes" vote in favor of Morsi’s deposer and possible successor, Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is seen by many as a rebuke of the kind of overtly Islamist, and even repressive, measures Morsi sought to enshrine during his 11 tumultuous months in office. Though with the Brotherhood's boycott of the ballot box, it's hard to draw fast conclusions about the country's favor through the vote.

“Morsi was an incredibly flawed leader,” says Joshua Stacher, a professor of political science and an Egypt expert at Kent State University. “He was a competent administrator within the Muslim Brotherhood, but I don’t think he was up to the task of being president of Egypt.”

Stacher, who knew Morsi well and spoke to him by phone three days before he assumed the presidency, says Morsi was “rural and conservative” in his outlook and politically tone-deaf. He cites one occasion when Morsi scheduled a constitutional vote on the same day as Christian Coptic Easter, oblivious of the message of insensitivity that would send to one of Egypt’s oldest and most embattled communities. “He was almost a careerist, and I don't say that affectionately. He was watching where the wind goes, and he went with it.”

Morsi grew up one of five children in a rural area north of Cairo. He studied engineering briefly in the United States, and two of his five children, born in California, are American citizens. On his return to Egypt, Morsi began teaching at Zagazig University, where he also became involved in the Muslim Brotherhood. Then, as now, the Brotherhood was a suspect and often banned organization. Morsi trod carefully, however, and slowly rose through the ranks to become senior enough to “say pretty much what he wanted without getting in trouble from above,” says Stacher.

Ultimately, it may have been Morsi’s devotion to the Brotherhood—and not Egypt—that doomed him. In that sense, Morsi’s fate is emblematic of the constantly shifting undercurrents in Egypt, especially when it comes to the one-hundred-year-old Brotherhood.

“After Morsi’s ouster, the Brotherhood could have called on people to continue to fight politically and asked for support, but they didn’t do that,” says Gilbert Achcar, a professor of development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and author of the book The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising. “But they didn’t do that. They just keep saying, ‘Morsi is president,’ over and over again. It’s absurd.”

Achcar argues that the miscalculation emboldened the military and gave it more legitimacy to crack down on the Brotherhood, whose members are increasingly seen as out-of-touch bullies bent on vengeance against the old regime. Morsi relinquished any rights to a legitimate claim on the presidency the minute his authoritarian streak became visible, Achcar adds.

“When you’re elected it doesn't mean you stick to power even if you lose the confidence of those who constitute the electorate,” he says. “It’s not a blank check. You're elected on expectations, and you meet them. Otherwise, you’re a Gadhafi,” referring to Libya's felled leader.

For all that, the grounds for Morsi’s trial are viewed as dubious at best.

“As much as I think that he failed miserably, and I'm not convinced in the legitimacy of his grievance, in the same way I'm not convinced of legitimacy of his trial,” says Achcar. “They overthrew him; that's enough. I think he's basically a hostage now.”

Stacher goes further, calling the proceeding a kangaroo court in which Morsi is being blamed for widespread problems.

“Did Morsi incite violence or provide conditions that led to bad conditions? Maybe. But this has been Egypt since 2010; anyone close to a government office for 10 minutes has done the same thing,” Stacher says.

History isn’t liable to be kind to Morsi’s reign, but it’s unlikely that Morsi’s successor is in a much better position to change things either. For all the revolutionary twists and turns Egypt has gone through over the last three years, the most unstable period may still lie ahead. Most observers agree that the show of support for Sisi’s military apparatus also has a short shelf life, in part because the problems that most plague Egypt—high unemployment, a lack of purchasing power, poor exchange rates—linger no matter who is in power.

Stacher believes Morsi was felled by a combination of things—the Brotherhood’s political naïveté and the extent to which the Egyptian military was willing to go to secure its own future. “It was always structured for the Brotherhood to lose the game,” he says, “Unfortunately, they weren't very savvy, and they walked into every trap.”

In that sense, says Stacher, Morsi was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. “His legacy is going to be disastrous,” he says. “He’ll be seen as an autocratic, backwards, a country bumpkin, ignorant, repressive leader. But hardly any of that is going to be based in reality. He shouldn't be up for awards, but he didn't stand a chance either.”

More than anything, Egyptians may be right to wonder, as Stacher does, whether the new military dispensation will make the bad old days of Mubarak’s regime look good by comparison. “Now we have seen a regime change. This is something new and different: It’s incredibly regressive and much more narrow.”

“Who in his right mind would wish to be president of Egypt now?” asks Achcar. “It’s a nightmare in my view.”