Brother Number Two Who Became Brother Number One: Meet the man who might be Egypt’s president, 9/11-denier, Mohamed Morsi.

June 10, 2012

Foreign Policy:

Egypt is on the cusp of its first real experiment in Islamist governance. If the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi comes out on top in the upcoming presidential runoff election, scheduled for June 16 and 17, the venerable Islamist movement will have won control of both Egypt’s presidency and its parliament, and it will have a very real chance to implement its agenda of market-driven economic recovery, gradual Islamization, and the reassertion of Egypt’s regional role.

Over the course of Egypt’s troubled transition, the Brotherhood has become increasingly, and uncharacteristically, assertive in its political approach. Renouncing promises not to seek the presidency and entering into an overt confrontation with the ruling military council, the Brotherhood’s bid to “save the revolution” has been interpreted by others as an all-out power grab. Egypt’s liberals, as well as the United States, now worry about the implications of unchecked Brotherhood rule and what that might mean for their interests.

Things couldn’t have been more different two years ago. Under the repression of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the Brotherhood’s unofficial motto was “participation, not domination.” The group was renowned for its caution and patient (some would say too patient) approach to politics. When I sat down with Morsi in May 2010 — just months before the revolution and well before he could have ever imagined being Mubarak’s successor — he echoed the leadership’s almost stubborn belief in glacial but steady change. He even objected to a fairly anodyne description of the movement’s political activities: “The word ‘opposition’ has the connotation of seeking power,” Morsi told me then. “But, at this moment, we are not seeking power because [that] requires preparation, and society is not prepared.” The Muslim Brotherhood, being a religious movement more than a political party, had the benefit of a long horizon.

Morsi wasn’t well known back then. He was an important player in the Brotherhood, but did not seem to have a particularly distinctive set of views. He was a loyalist, an enforcer, and an operator. And he was arguably good at those things. But being, or becoming, a leader is a different matter. Despite heading the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc and later leading the group’s newly formed Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Morsi struggled to command respect across ideological lines. He rarely spoke like someone who liked making concessions or doing the hard work necessary for building consensus.

Like many Brotherhood leaders, he nurtured a degree of resentment toward Egypt’s liberals. They were tiny and irrelevant, the thinking went, so why were they always asking for so much? In May 2010, the opposition seemed to be coming alive, but in a uniquely Egyptian way. At one protest in Tahrir Square, each group — Islamists, liberals, and leftists — huddled in its own part of the square. I asked Morsi why there wasn’t greater cooperation between Islamists and liberals. “That depends on the other side,” he said, echoing what the liberals were saying about the Brotherhood.

This thinly veiled disdain could be papered over when liberals, leftists, and Brotherhood members were facing a dictator they all hated. And, during the revolution, Brotherhood members, Salafists, liberals, and ordinary Egyptians joined hands and put the old divisions aside — if only for a moment. When Mubarak fell, though, there was little left to unite them.

The international community, particularly the United States, shares the liberals’ fear of Islamist domination, but for a very different set of reasons. Historically, the Brotherhood has been one of the more consistent purveyors of anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment. While some Brotherhood leaders, particularly lead strategist Khairat El Shater, are less strident in their condemnations and less willfully creative with their conspiracy theories in private, Morsi is not. In a conversation with me, he volunteered his views on the 9/11 terrorist attacks without any prompting. “When you come and tell me that the plane hit the tower like a knife in butter,” he said, shifting to English, “then you are insulting us. How did the plane cut through the steel like this? Something must have happened from the inside. It’s impossible.”

According to various polls, such views are held by most Egyptians, including leftists and liberals, but that doesn’t make them any less troubling. It is perhaps ironic, then, that out of the Brotherhood’s top officials, Morsi has spent the most time in the United States. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California and, interestingly, the father of two U.S. citizens — a reminder that familiarity can sometimes breed contempt. At a recent news conference, Morsi discussed his time living abroad, painting a picture of a society in moral decay, featuring crumbling families, young mothers in hospitals who have to “write in the name of the father,” and couples living together out of wedlock. We don’t have these problems in Egypt, he said, his voice rising with a mixture of pride and resentment.

I met Morsi again, a year later in May 2011, at the Brotherhood’s new, plush headquarters in Muqattam, nestled on a small mountain on Cairo’s outskirts. The Brotherhood leader seemed surprisingly calm. He punctuated his Arabic with English expressions; he made jokes (they weren’t necessarily funny), name-checked the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, and even did an impromptu impression of a former U.S. president. In the early days, in the afterglow of the 18-day uprising, the group’s leaders were still careful to say the right things. He was quick to point out that 2,500 of the FJP’s 9,000 founding members were not from the Brotherhood, and included Christians.

He was also dismissive of ultraconservative Salafi movements. They weren’t politically mature yet, he said. The implication was obvious: The Brotherhood, unlike the Salafists, had spent decades first learning and then playing — rather skillfully at times — the game of politics. They learned how and when to compromise and how to justify it to their conservative base. Now, nearly 28 years after first entering parliament in 1984, the group was taking pains to present itself as the moderate, respectable face of political Islam.

But the Brotherhood soon realized that it had stumbled upon one of those rare moments where a country’s politics are truly open and undefined. So they decided to seize it, alienating many of their erstwhile liberal allies in the process. This approach was a good fit with the Brotherhood’s distinctly majoritarian approach to democracy: They had won a decisive popular mandate in the parliamentary elections, with 47 percent of the vote, so why shouldn’t they rule?…

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