Cairo’s Unity Palace was once the largest hotel in the Middle East. Built in 1910, the structure’s waiting rooms recall the billiard tables and colonial indulgence of its former guests. Its 19th-century landscape paintings and chandeliers provide a strange backdrop to meet any President of Egypt, let alone a long-time and high-ranking member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
It was like going to see a recently installed communist general secretary in a czarist palace.
A reporter visiting Cairo is unlikely to hear anything positive about President Mohammed Morsi, with his primarily rural and Islamist base. One dispirited opposition member said the Morsi government made her regret the revolution; in Cairo’s salons, people murmur positively of a military coup.
Many were as surprised that I wanted to talk to him as that he was willing to grant a rare interview.
Mr. Morsi would tell me that he knows that “I should reach out to them,” speaking of his desire to “move to a new situation where the president should be a part of the system, maybe the most important part, but not the whole system – all the strengths should not be in his hands.” But his democratic record so far is very mixed.
He was behind his desk when I was ushered in. He came over and welcomed me in English, with the self-conscious warmth you might expect from the engineering professor turned university president that he once was.
He has none of the aging-movie-star slickness of his predecessor, the deposed and jailed Hosni Mubarak, who recently showed up in court on a hospital bed, in sunglasses, with a smirk that suggested Egypt’s present chaos was just what he had expected.
Mr. Morsi, in contrast, was less suave than the chamberlain who ushered me in. He still lives in his old second-floor apartment, where he was arrested during the 2011 revolution, and he grew up on a farm in a country where the upper class still refer to “peasants.”
He is not tall and is somewhat stout, and he wears the compromise beard of the Muslim Brotherhood – neither stylishly close-cut nor religiously woolly.
Once a political prisoner in Mr. Mubarak’s 2006 crackdown, the President described his country’s new freedom as something that could not be “digested easily,” as if the revolution were a cow swallowed by a crocodile.
Since the extraordinary uprising of January, 2011, the tide has gone out, exposing Egypt’s profound divisions. It is the most populous Arab country, with 84 million people, and historically the most influential, so what happens in Egypt sways the region. And with its strategic location, that affects the world.
During my two-week visit, the country was dyspeptic. Anti-Christian mobs attacked a Coptic cathedral. Muslim Brotherhood supporters attacked the legitimacy of the courts. Tourism, a critical source of revenue, had dropped because of security fears and reports of rising sexual assaults.
The International Monetary Fund was in town for delicate negotiations over an essential loan that would probably happen only if Mr. Morsi enacted austerity measures likely to alienate him from his base. And a popular comedian was charged with insulting the President, reinforcing middle-class suspicions of a creeping autocracy that would lead to Islamization.
Presiding over these interesting times is this former professor, a long-time organizer and a politician no one expected. He is known as “the spare tire” because his party’s first choice, a tough, charismatic businessman named Khairat el-Shater, was blocked from running because he had too recently been in prison.
Mr. Morsi rose in the narrow world of a Muslim Brotherhood under siege from the Mubarak regime, and then became their political enforcer in parliament. He is a believer by inclination, not a leader. But now the Egypt that he knew has disappeared, and updating the old beliefs is proving difficult.
Aides indicated that we should sit on a gilded couch and chair, a style known in Egypt as Louis Farouk, after Egypt’s last playboy king, ousted in 1952.
The President’s English is surprisingly good, but it is functional, not fluent, as if he were relearning it. He often switched mid-sentence into Arabic when he felt that he was being unclear.
Yet Mr. Morsi was also keen to indicate his familiarity with North America – he had studied at the University of Southern California in the late 1970s. He compared Egypt’s present difficulties to California’s during the oil and Iranian hostage crises of that time.