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Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi speaks to supporters in front of the presidential palace in Cairo November 23, 2012. (Egyptian Presidency/Handout/Reuters)
Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi speaks to supporters in front of the presidential palace in Cairo November 23, 2012. (Egyptian Presidency/Handout/Reuters)

Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi: Concertmaster or megalomaniac? Add to ...

Mr. Morsi’s flair for uniting parties outside Egypt may be moot if he is unable to do the same within his own country – a nation of myriad political and social leanings (where even the Muslim Brotherhood has its own battling factions). Egypt threatens to polarize into two groups: Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, and everybody else.

“He won the last election by 51 or 52 per cent,” said Ahmed Khayri of the liberal Free Egyptians Party in an interview just minutes before Mr. Morsi announced his decrees. “Half of the Egyptian people had issues with Morsi from day one. He hasn’t tried to change their minds.”

Ever the conciliator

Mohammed Morsi was never meant to run for the country’s highest office – not because the U.S.-trained engineering professor was unqualified, but because the Muslim Brotherhood already had a candidate.

But when the country’s Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission rejected senior Brotherhood member Khairat El-Shater’s candidacy, Mr. Morsi, as the Brotherhood’s backup candidate, assumed the leading role.

The revolutions that swept much of the Arab world over the past two years marked the most significant and chaotic period of change in the region in generations. Although Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country, where non-Muslims are prohibited from the government’s top office, the revolution itself was largely secular. At the end of a violent process (mostly on the part of state security forces) that saw hundreds killed, Egyptians went to the polls.

Well before the elections, relations between the country’s revolutionaries and the Islamists were complicated at best. Many of the young Egyptian activists resented the Brotherhood for what they saw as the group’s attempt to co-opt the revolution for its own purposes – namely, to secure power for itself in whatever post-revolution government was formed. Indeed, after decades of manoeuvring under previous Egyptian regimes that frequently imprisoned its members (including, for seven months in 2006, Mr. Morsi), the Brotherhood was already far more politically savvy than many of the parties that emerged after the revolution.

Mr. Morsi had run for the Brotherhood in parliamentary elections as far back as 2000, but the married father of five exhibited a lack of polish and charisma in the run-up to the elections and still comes off as awkward in his public appearances. He initially campaigned on a pro-sharia platform, but softened his stand as the race reached its climax.

Mr. Morsi’s move to the centre paid off when he found himself one of only two candidates left standing in a runoff election. The other candidate, Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafik, had run on a promise to keep Egypt away from the hands of Islamists. But his ties to the Mubarak regime made him unacceptable to large swaths of the population, who instead voted for the only other candidate available. In the end, Mr. Morsi won Egypt’s first free elections with just 51.7 per cent of the popular vote.

When Mr. Morsi became President on June 30, he assumed an office that had recently been rendered impotent by the country’s powerful military leadership. The country’s generals dissolved parliament, gave themselves broad lawmaking power and remposed martial law.

Backed by the Brotherhood, Mr. Morsi set about wrestling power back from the military. On Aug. 5, gunmen opened fire on a group of Egyptian guards near the country’s border with Israel, killing 16. Mr. Morsi fired two senior generals in response. Less than 10 days later, he dismissed his defence minister and cut the military’s influence on policy-making. Many pro-revolutionary activists praised the decision.

Still, the prospect of an Islamist President wielding ever-increasing levels of power worried many. Some secularists, as well as members of Egypt’s Christian minority, were not pleased with Mr. Morsi’s habit of making public speeches in the style of Friday prayer sermons. Politicians in Washington were also skeptical of Mr. Morsi, and the relationship soured further in September when protesters angry at an anti-Islam film breached the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo.

At the time, the United States was engaged in a process that would have seen it slash about $1-billion of Egypt’s external debt. However, the decision faced stiff resistance from some U.S. lawmakers, especially in light of the embassy incident.

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