A few months ago, Mohammed Morsi and I were walking across the gardens of the presidential palace with his security detail at a discreet distance. It was the end of more than three hours I had spent with him over three days. It was not a good time to be president of Egypt. The currency was dropping, an important IMF loan was in jeopardy and there were riots between Christians and Muslims. Everyone knew it was going to be a volatile summer. But Mr. Morsi, an avuncular type who liked to laugh and make jokes and digress into sharia law, seemed remarkably unconcerned. Perhaps he was just used to it by then.
Mr. Morsi had been president of Egypt for less than a year and one of his constant themes during the series of interviews was how slow the progress had been and how great expectations had become after the revolution. He was very much aware of how huge that gap had become. In the end, it seems to have destroyed his presidency.
Mr. Morsi must have known all along that what happened Wednesday was a very real possibility. His grasp on power was tenuous. I was told by an adviser that when Mr. Morsi was first elected in June, 2012, he didn’t even trust his own presidential guard. From his vantage point, the leftover apparatus of the regime of Hosni Mubarak had more power than Mr. Morsi he did. There can’t be many presidents who openly admit they don’t control the army, police or the bureaucracy. But he did, often.
A former professor and political prisoner, he was not by nature a salesman, but despite everything, Mr. Morsi was upbeat about Egypt’s future. The Mubarak legacy would take a while to overcome but he was convinced the country would have a solid economic and political system in the not-too-distant future. How long? “Five years,” he said. In the end, Mr. Morsi had only one.
But Mr. Morsi seemed incapable of understanding the depth of the anger and frustration that was growing outside the palace walls. Behind the discontent, he saw only “fingers” – a favourite term – of foreigners and the old regime.
In conversation, Mr. Morsi came across as smart and thoughtful but any question that suggested there was another side to the story – that the opposition might have legitimate issues – made him uneasy or dismissive. He blamed the country’s economic problems on 32 families close to the old regime, an oversimplification that played to his domestic supporters but worried the foreign investors he was desperately trying to woo.
He thought worries about the new constitution’s failure to protect individual rights was pointless because sharia would take care of things. But by dismissing these concerns, he alienated many of the urban youth who been such an important force in the revolution. When his own supporters brought charges against a local television comedian, he failed to understand why people were disgusted by the hypocrisy because these were the same libel laws that Mr. Mubarak had used as well.
While Mr. Morsi saw the remnant of the old regime everywhere, the opposition worried that he was just a front for a takeover of the country by the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead of addressing those concerns, he claimed the legitimacy – one of his favourite words – of an election he had just barely won. In Cairo, you often heard people say that Mr. Morsi wasn’t the president of Egypt, he was just the president of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the end that was one of his biggest problems: He assumed being elected was enough. I have rarely been in the presence of a politician who seemed so utterly apolitical. He didn’t just lack charisma. He seemed to lack that internal engine that drives people to power and the mechanism that determines the way power is directed. He would have been an unlikely mayor of a small town let alone president of a country with close to 90 million people and enormous problems. But for Mr. Morsi, political legitimacy was derived from the ballot box alone as if being elected made you a leader. That’s not even true if you have some control over the government and, for someone in Mr. Morsi’s position, it suggested unpardonable naivete.
Watching the announcement of the military takeover, I was reminded of something Mr. Morsi said to me early in our first interview. Freedom, he said, could not be easily digested in Egypt. Perhaps he meant the revolution itself. In any case, whatever it is that happened seems to have swallowed him instead.