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Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi: Concertmaster or megalomaniac?

Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi speaks to supporters in front of the presidential palace in Cairo November 23, 2012.

Egyptian Presidency/Handout/Reuters

From the balcony in his office building, Mahmoud Soheim was given a front-row view of Egypt's revolution. He listened to the overwhelming chants of the revolutionaries the day President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. He watched as protesters stormed the American embassy. And this week, Mr. Soheim, a research director at Cairo Financial Holding, a downtown investment firm, was once again witness to history.

Many landmarks of Egypt's almost two-year-old revolution – from Tahrir Square to the murals of killed protesters on Mohammed Mahmoud Street – lie within a few blocks of Mr. Soheim's office. On Friday afternoon, at the end of a cataclysmic week that marked Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's greatest foreign-policy triumph and his most divisive domestic decree, protesters are back in and around Tahrir, chanting, waving massive banners bearing the faces of the revolution's dead and occasionally running from tear-gas canisters thrown by security officers. Some protesters are calling for Mr. Morsi's ouster, much the same way they did during the last days of his predecessor's reign. In another part of town, Mr. Morsi's supporters are engaged in a boisterous demonstration of their own, calling him a hero and a protector of the revolution. A country of 82 million people and infinite opinions suddenly seems polarized.

After almost two years, Mr. Soheim has become accustomed to the chaotic aftershocks of Egypt's revolution. But like many Egyptians who rode a wave of euphoria that trickled into disillusionment, Mr. Soheim has lost faith in the country's first freely elected president. Mr. Morsi's election was supposed to mark the moment Egyptians stopped revolting and started rebuilding. So far, it has not.

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"He has been President for six months, and he hasn't done anything," says Mr. Soheim, a smartly dressed man whose spare office smells heavily of cigarette smoke. "He's not working for the country, he's not working for the people, he's working for the Muslim Brotherhood – and if you criticize them, they say you're criticizing Allah."

This week, Mr. Morsi cemented his position as the most important figure in Middle East diplomacy, after brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. The deal, which seemed perfectly suited to Mr. Morsi's brand of pragmatism and detail-focused problem-solving, garnered the Islamist President widespread praise domestically and moreso overseas. It also cast him in the role of the model post-revolutionary leader, one who could bridge the violent and generations-long divides marring the region. The White House, once wary of Mr. Morsi's strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, the 84-year-old Egyptian Sunni Islamist organization, rebranded him an ally and a partner for peace.

The very next day, Mr. Morsi unleashed a firestorm of protest when he unveiled a series of decrees that made his decisions immune to challenge by the Egyptian courts, or any other authority. He also extended similar powers to Egypt's upper house of parliament and the committee charged with writing the country's new constitution – both groups dominated by Islamists and thus likely to attempt to include principles of sharia law in the new constitution, something many in the Muslim Brotherhood strongly support. Within minutes of Mr. Morsi's announcement, demonstrators in downtown Cairo were calling him, in the words of high-profile political figure Mohamed ElBaradei, a "new Pharaoh."

On Friday in Tahrir Square, thousands of the President's opponents demonstrated against his decrees, chanting, "Morsi is Mubarak" and "The people want the downfall of the Brotherhood."

Addressing a supportive rally at the presidential palace, Mr. Morsi depicted himself as the protector of stability and said he welcomed a genuine and strong opposition. "I am the guarantor of that and I will protect for my brothers in the opposition all their rights so they can exercise their role."

A long-time critic of the Mubarak regime, Mr. Morsi was forced early on to develop a keen survival instinct. Few question his loyalty to the Brotherhood, which gave him a launching pad into politics. It is the potent mix of those two factors – survival instinct and loyalty to the Brotherhood – that opponents fear may turn Mr. Morsi into an Islamist version of Mr. Mubarak. By most accounts, Mr. Morsi hasn't been nearly as ruthless as his predecessor, but in a country still fresh off a revolution, his every action is viewed with an eye to the man he replaced.

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.

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"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.

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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.

Such aid is vital at a time when Egypt's economy is caught in a post-revolution slump. Its budget deficit and domestic debt are soaring, and the tourism industry, once a pillar of Egypt's economy, has partially collapsed. As such, Cairo has come to rely even more heavily on external support from the United States, the International Monetary Fund and others.

Ever the polarizer

It is the economy, more than any other area, where Mr. Morsi's domestic and foreign-policy challenges intersect. The first pillar of the Egyptian revolution's unofficial slogan, "Bread, Freedom, Social Justice," refers to the affordability of basic goods. As with most political leaders, Mr. Morsi's job security ebbs and flows with his country's economy. In fact, one of the most beneficial side-effects of Mr. Morsi's success on the Gaza file will likely be the extent to which his resulting goodwill with Washington will translate to aid money. But just as quickly as U.S. officials were praising Mr. Morsi earlier in the week, they found themselves forced to express "concern" over his decrees a day later.

Even as Mr. Morsi and his staff worked out the details of the ceasefire, the Gaza crisis seemed to generate relatively fewer headlines within Egypt. Local media covered the violence closely, but focused instead on a series of domestic calamities: More than 50 people, the vast majority of them children, were killed when a train plowed into a school bus in a town 350 kilometres south of Cairo; a military pilot died after his jet crashed in the southern city of Aswan.

In addition, a group of protesters had started a week-long and sometimes-violent demonstration on Mohammed Mahmoud Street in downtown Cairo to commemorate the one-year anniversary of a clash on the same street that left dozens dead.

Rather than help him, the President's quick action on the Gaza file in some ways left him vulnerable to criticism domestically. On one of the country's popular late-night TV news shows, which tend to frame living-room conversations in Egypt, a commentator asked: Why does Mr. Morsi show so much empathy to the victims in Gaza, but not to the martyrs of the revolution?

The day after brokering the ceasefire, Mr. Morsi addressed that issue. He pre-empted his spokesperson's announcements later that evening by saying his decrees would be in support of the revolution. And when the spokesperson began listing off the orders – which included more compensation for those injured during the revolution, and a promise to retry those accused of killing demonstrators – it seemed Mr. Morsi kept his promise. But the decrees granting Mr. Morsi extended powers nonetheless sparked outrage.

So again, Egyptians are protesting on a Friday.

Which Morsi will prevail?

In the months and years following the revolution, residents of Cairo have evolved an ability to live with cataclysm. On a Friday afternoon, families and tourists gather at the foot of Qasr El Nil bridge to chant support for a massive wave of protesters crossing the Nile to reach Tahrir Square. Street vendors sell Egyptian flags, Oreo cookie knockoffs and facemasks to protect from tear gas. Nearby, down a street on the other side of the square, a phalanx of bored-looking officers in riot gear stands behind a chest-high line of barbed wire, protecting the road that leads to the American embassy. There have always been officers near the embassy, but there are more of them now.

But slowly, the economic malaise and lack of political consensus are taking their toll on President Morsi's Egypt.

"You can feel it on the street," says Mr. Soheim, the investment firm research director, his desk littered with research reports on the state of Egypt's economy and newspaper clippings of articles about the Brotherhood. "It's unpleasant, what's happening to the economy, but when you start to hear the taxi driver talk about it, you know it's spilling onto the whole country."

Ultimately, Mr. Morsi faces an urgent challenge to convince a large and diverse portion of the country – including the throngs of people who chanted for his downfall in Tahrir and elsewhere on Friday – that he has a grand vision for Egypt.

"There's an issue of clarity, frankness, of establishing rapport between him and the rest of society," says Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the American University of Cairo. "People want him to present an inventory – what are the main problems he's trying to fix? We don't know. We don't know how he sees the world around him."

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