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.
“You are too young to remember Cronkite, I think,” he said, and quoted the former CBS news anchor: “That’s the way it is.” Then, perhaps because I was Canadian, he added, “C’est la vie.”
He is a hard man to categorize. U.S. President Barack Obama called him a “straight shooter,” but in interviews he is famously opaque, retreating into friendly but verbose expositions. He continually refers to his electoral legitimacy, but for a period he granted himself dictatorial powers. He is known for making anti-Semitic statements, but by all accounts Israel seems pleased by his actions so far, including the ceasefire in Gaza he helped to broker.
Mr. Morsi was elected with less than 52 per cent of the vote, with quite a bit of support from the secular opposition; now, it is alleged he used old-regime laws to ram through his minority vision of the country – that as a former political prisoner, he started out like Nelson Mandela but was turning into Hosni Mubarak. It was not a comparison he enjoyed.
“I think you can see that it is not appropriate to compare what we have now in Egypt and what we had, for example, in 2010,” he finally said. “We are learning democracy, we are getting together more than before, we are a little bit deeper than before – we have freedom of speech, freedom of expression.”
It was just a week before we met, however, that a presidentially appointed Prosecutor General had hauled a cardiologist-turned-comic named Bassem Youssef, the Jon Stewart of Egypt, into court for insulting Mr. Morsi. In North America, The Daily Show aired this news along with a video from 2010 of Mr. Morsi fulminating against Jews as “descendents of apes and pigs.”
Mr. Morsi has said before that those statements were not directed at Jews but came out of anger at the way Israel treats Palestinians, a circular argument that he reiterated to me: “I do not hold any prejudice against Jews as a faith, as a people, that would be in direct contravention to my own belief as a Muslim,” he said. “I was speaking very specifically about practices that were taking place around the killing of innocent people.”
As for the rationale for Dr. Youssef, he pointed out that the comedian had only been charged, not arrested, a distinction the United States failed to make, he said, because they did not understand the Egyptian justice system. Still, libel and slander remain the criminal offences they were under the old regime.
“You have to understand that in Egypt the general custom does not accept even average people insulting each other,” he insisted. “It is a major social issue.”
Yet Mr. Morsi also admitted that, like a Republican candidate facing Tea Party primary challengers, he was under pressure within his own community: The Muslim Brotherhood is divided between conservative and more liberal factions; they, in turn, have the harder-line Salafis on their Islamist flank.
Despite the widespread coverage, Mr. Morsi said there had been little fallout from what must now be, after the Gaza ceasefire, the best-known episode of his presidency in the West.
“From our point of view our relationship [with the West] hasn’t changed, and I say that sincerely,” he said.
He left me with the impression either that he had not quite understood American culture despite his time there or that much of the recent public tension between his administration and the White House was a charade, or at least a happy accident. After all, a fight over a comedian was a good chance for everyone to play to their base.
Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that he called Mr. Obama a “Zionist” on the tapes from 2010, especially because events had now led many in Egypt to criticize him for being too close to Washington and Israel.
Mr. Morsi was at his sister’s funeral last November when Mr. Obama called from Air Force One. Israel and Gaza were at war: A ground incursion into the Palestinian enclave in retaliation for thousands of rockets was a real threat.
“We were at the cemetery after the burial and we’d said the prayers,” he said. “I felt that I was able to do my duty to my sister but I had to take this call – I had to do this.”
As though suddenly caught in a time warp, an Egyptian president was being called on by a U.S. president to broker peace with Israel. But these were different times and different leaders. Mr. Morsi, as an Islamist, embodied some of America’s biggest fears about the consequences of the Arab Spring.
As the Muslim Brotherhood is the parent organization of the militant religious group Hamas, Mr. Morsi may have had the trust of many Palestinians, but the depth of his support for the 30-year-old Israeli-Egyptian peace deal concerned Washington.
Earlier in the fall, Mr. Obama had felt that Mr. Morsi had not done enough to protect the American embassy from attacks after the release of an anti-Muslim video. He was not a dictator who could serve U.S. interests with little regard for popular opinion. But Washington had no one else to turn to.
That call at the funeral was one of six between the two presidents over the next week, some in the middle of the night in their respective time zones. In American terms, this bordered on courtship. Once Mr. Obama was confident that they could work out a ceasefire, he sent Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, to Cairo from Jerusalem that afternoon to work out the details.
“I saw an opportunity for the Palestinians and President Obama saw an opportunity with respect to the Israeli side,” Mr. Morsi said. “And we found when we looked at both sides that there were some shared demands and some differences. So we made a decision to work on … the ceasefire: to come to a point where the aggression stops, where the firing stops.”
Mr. Obama was impressed by Mr. Morsi’s pragmatism and lack of ideology. He sensed an “engineer’s precision” and told aides that he had seen a “straight shooter who delivered.”
Shortly after the fighting began on Nov. 14, Mr. Morsi made two bold moves that would have been unthinkable under Mr. Mubarak: “We withdrew the Egyptian ambassador [to Israel] immediately, and that was intended to be a signal to say, ‘Let’s de-escalate. Let’s make sure things don’t progress to outright conflict,’ ” Mr. Morsi explained. “And sending the Prime Minister of Egypt [into Gaza] – Egypt has its weight in the region – was to send a signal that this conflict must end and it must not escalate.”
By the time Mrs. Clinton arrived at Mr. Morsi’s office the day after the funeral, he had already called “maybe 40 presidents, kings and princes.” Mrs. Clinton herself began making calls right away while the Egyptians dealt with Hamas.
“She insisted on not leaving my office until we finished the process,” Mr. Morsi said. “I remember that. At least three hours, maybe more.”
When the one-page ceasefire agreement was released later that day, Mr. Morsi was transformed from an Islamist bogeyman into a statesman praised by the unlikely combination of Mr. Obama, Israel and Hamas alike. Far from threatening peace, he was now a pillar of regional stability.
Mr. Morsi had out-Mubaraked Mr. Mubarak. When he began closing tunnels for smuggling from Egypt into Gaza – and keeping them closed by pouring sewage into them – even skeptics were surprised.
And that hectic week was about to get even more so. “I was very busy with our internal affairs and, you may remember or not remember, I have issued something else.” Mr. Morsi said with a laugh. Many Egyptians remember the “something else” better than the ceasefire – it is often called his domestic bombshell.
On Nov. 22, the day after the truce was announced, Mr. Morsi issued a seven-part declaration giving himself sweeping powers. The opposition was stunned. Even his vice-president was said to be surprised. Over the next few weeks, it was no longer international peacemakers arriving at the Presidential Palace but protesters, hurling Molotov cocktails and trying to storm the walls.
For several months, battles over drafting a constitution had been splitting Egyptian politics wide open. It was a contest over not only Egypt’s future but what it means to be Egyptian. Secularists and Christians had walked out of a process controlled by Islamists who seemed to want to remake the country in their image.
Several measures – suggesting legislation will be judged by a conservative interpretation of sharia law, or stating that “the family is the basis of society and is founded on religion, morality, and patriotism” and that the “state shall safeguard ethics” – seemed to progressives to betray the revolution.
“This means that the state will not be governed by clear legal rules respecting civil liberties,” Mohammed Nour Faharat, a law professor and opposition party adviser, told me. “Rather, it is governed by religious institutions which apply their own religious perceptions onto society.”
With protesters in the streets and the constitutional assembly falling apart, Mr. Morsi’s aim in awarding himself special powers on Nov. 22 was to force the draft constitution to a referendum without judicial interference as quickly as possible.
He also replaced an unpopular, old-regime prosecutor general with one more likely to carry out the Brotherhood agenda (for example, by charging the comedian, Dr. Youssef).
On Dec. 5, outside the palace, as the police looked on, Muslim Brotherhood supporters attacked protesters. Nearly a dozen were killed. Meanwhile, the fact that Mrs. Clinton had visited the day before the power grab raised suspicions that the United States was once again absolving an Egyptian autocrat, so long as there was peace with Israel.
“We felt,” Khaled Dawoud, the spokesman for the opposition National Salvation Front, told me, “that Morsi believed he now had the backing of the U.S. after reaching a ceasefire in Gaza, and they would allow him to consolidate power internally by issuing his disastrous declaration on the constitution.”
When I asked Mr. Morsi whether there had been any quid pro quo with Mrs. Clinton, he was categorical – if there is one thing an Islamist should be able to claim, it’s independence from Washington.
“Oh, no, no. I don’t do this. Never ever. Not then. Not now. Not in the future,” he said, shifting away from his academic tone. “I don’t do this. Stopping war is a humanitarian responsibility. I was doing it for the sake of it. Nothing like this has been discussed at all. I wouldn’t accept anything like this.”
And then, a bit later, he asked, somewhat surprised, “She didn’t say that, did she?”
But then, against critics’ expectations, having achieved his goal, Mr. Morsi relinquished his dictatorial powers. On Dec. 15, the constitutional referendum passed by 62 per cent (though with only 32 per cent turnout). For a founding document of a country, it was a rushed affair. But he sees speed as part of the accomplishment.
“Other countries have taken much longer time to make any kind of an achievement,” he told me. “And today I am governed by a constitution. I have a constitution that sets limits on my powers.” (Among other things, it limits presidents to two four-year terms.) “So that’s the essence of democracy.”
According to Shadi Hamid, the director for research at the Brookings Doha Center, since the revolution, two almost incompatible Egypts have emerged. Each has good reasons to be suspicious of each other.
Islamists view the secularists and liberals not just as political foes but allies of the feloul, the remnants of the Mubarak dictatorship that survives across the critical pillars of the establishment: the judiciary, media, army, police and the enormous bureaucracy. They also believe that the opposition hopes for a coup, although that is unlikely.
Mr. Morsi has aligned himself with the army more than with the much-hated police, whose brutality was one of the causes of the revolution. But the security services have an unusual level of autonomy. Even the President concedes that he does not have a grip on the police, saying he controls 50 or 60 per cent, a number that seemed optimistic.
“The old regime is gone, but some of its effects are still deeply seated in the society,” he said. “So we have obstacles.”
What liberals fear is a process called Ikwhanization or Brotherhoodization – a slow takeover of the state by the Brotherhood through its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which won elections last year (then nullified by the Supreme Constitutional Court) and is expected to win again this fall.
When I asked Mr. Morsi about Ikhwanization, he let out something of a belly laugh. “People have let this word loose, but in terms of facts on the ground, there’s nothing to support that. There are 35 ministers in the cabinet, of which seven belong to the FJP. There are 27 governors, with three or maybe four people who could be even remotely associated with the FJP.”
But his critics say that is disingenuous. The real decision-makers, they say, are aligned with the Brotherhood, which is why the government has had trouble attracting technocrats And as the crisis showed, when the President needed something done, compromise was not his method.
When I questioned Mr. Morsi about the constitution, he got up quickly, went to his desk drawer and pulled out a copy in Arabic, then asked if there wasn’t an English version around.
“Uh-oh,” the translator joked when I asked about women’s rights. “You’re about to get a lecture on sharia.”
Mr. Morsi was keen that I not confuse the reputation of sharia in the West – the hand severing and stoning of the Taliban – with sharia’s long history in Egypt, where it was a part of all previous constitutions.
“My fundamental belief is that an authentic application of sharia in the contemporary context will preserve and enhance women’s rights,” he said.
This will be cold comfort to progressive women who watched as the Muslim Brotherhood joined the Vatican, Iran and Russia in condemning a United Nations declaration on women’s rights, warning that it could destroy Egyptian society.
The changes also trouble the Coptic Christian minority (non-Abrahamic religions are not protected at all), who make up about 10 per cent of Egyptians. Since the revolution, 24 churches have been attacked. Many are said to be leaving to join the diaspora in places such as Canada, where there are already an estimated 50,000 Copts.
When I asked why Christians should feel comfortable with his government, especially considering the recent violence around St. Mark’s Cathedral, he disagreed that it was a sectarian issue at all.
“There are problems that arise between Muslims and Muslims, there are also problems that arise between Christians and Christians, and there are also problems that arise between Muslims and Christians,” he said.
“When the same problems arise between Muslims and Christians that arise in each of the communities, it suddenly takes on a life of its own.”
He went on to describe a country in which Muslims and Christians, for the most part during the last 1,400 years, lived side by side in peace – in great part, he said, because of sharia.
This is not how Copts tend to view the relationship.
A brief history of Egyptian time
A theme Mr. Morsi returned to often was time, emphasizing that it is too early to judge his administration. Both a scientist and a man of faith, he said God could have made Earth in an instant, but chose six days instead.
Another topic was the complexity of post-revolutionary Egypt, which he called a “spaghetti structure.” It was, he said, a question of chicken and egg, trying to develop economically while getting used to democracy.
“Well, talking about liberals, Islamists, secularists,” he said. “The combination needs to have some opportunity to get together and manage different opinions but integrate in the society.”
Late in our conversations, Mr. Morsi assured me that Egypt would have strong democratic institutions and a developed economy in the future. Overcoming the Mubarak legacy, including corruption and the yawning gap between rich and poor, would be difficult for any government.
How long? I asked.
“Five years,” he said. But with the constitution and its aftermath not going away, it is hard to imagine that integration under his presidency.
With the Suez Canal, tourism, remittances from citizens abroad and a manufacturing sector close to Europe, Egypt has a sound economic foundations. But the country is not just polarized but multipolarized, and the political climate has affected the economy. As high unemployment (at nearly 25 per cent for youth alone) and widespread poverty meet the hopes engendered by the revolution, Egyptians grow impatient and wary.
Even worries about Ikhwanization are less of a concern in the short term than whether theBrotherhood has the economic expertise to pull the country together, in the domestic economy and for foreign investors. At the moment, few think they do.
The Brotherhood used to have a slogan that said, “Islam is the solution,” but the solutions it developed in opposition were for an Egypt that no longer exists, if it ever did. Mr. Morsi, despite his optimism, risks being trapped by an isolation not unlike the kind that marked Mr. Mubarak’s last years in office.
Before leaving Cairo, I was able to see Mr. Morsi again at another palace, the el-Qobba, a French-style chateau. We sat outside on a broad lawn surrounded by a high wall, while men with earpieces stood in the distance.
Outside, Mr. Morsi’s administration was in a political battle with large parts of society. In Cairo, people were talking about coming summer power shortages and inflation for food staples during Ramadan, which falls in July this year.
The garden was another reminder of what an unlikely occupant Mr. Morsi was in this palace, even if he was just commuting.
We could hear the mad traffic of Cairo and the President, making small talk, pointed and said, “It’s a very big wall.”
“Like prison,” I said, and he laughed.
We walked with his security detail across the enormous lawn back to the chateau. We shook hands on the wide, grandiose steps and he disappeared into the former royal residence.
Shortly after, a car pulled up and another, more dapper man hurried up the steps.
“That,” an adviser said, “is the head of the General Intelligence Service.”
Typically, those aren’t the sorts of people who bring you good news.Report Typo/Error
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