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Understanding Mohamed Morsi

His journey from farm boy to most powerful man in the Middle East.

ON A SULTRY MORNING in late September, I drove for two hours on the traffic-choked roads north of Cairo to Al Adwa, a Nile Delta town of dusty alleyways, mosques, and crumbling red brick houses. This is where Mohamed Morsi, the president of Egypt, was raised. Morsi left nearly four decades ago, but he returns regularly to visit his younger brothers, who still work the family farm, and to celebrate Islamic holidays. In 2008, he ritually slaughtered a sheep here for the Eid El Fitr* feast that ends the Ramadan fast.

I had traveled to Al Adwa hoping that Morsi’s hometown might shed some light on a man who has only become more enigmatic during his brief time in the spotlight. Since he became Egypt’s first democratically elected leader last June, Morsi has displayed both extraordinary political acumen and a tone-deafness that has plunged his country into deeper unrest. In November, he deftly helped negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, averting a bloody ground war in the Gaza Strip. Days later, he lost much of the goodwill he had earned by issuing an edict that awarded his office near-dictatorial powers.

Sometimes, Morsi can seem like the inspiring guardian of Egyptian democracy—such as when he courageously dismissed the military junta that had claimed the right to rule post–Hosni Mubarak Egypt. At other times, he can seem like a mouthpiece for the deeply conservative Muslim Brotherhood—declaring women unfit for high office and advocating for an international law to ban religious insults. (And sometimes he simply seems awkward, such as when he sat down for a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gilliard in September at the United Nations and proceeded, for several excruciating seconds, to publicly adjust his genitals.) So far, the only certainty about Morsi is that his ultimate intentions remain unknown.

Among Morsi’s many critics, the suspicion remains strong that he is an Islamist at heart—and that this identity, shaped in the small conservative town where I was standing, will ultimately define his presidency. On the second floor of his three-story red brick childhood home, he still keeps a small study. His cousin, a skinny man in his early twenties, showed me the room, with its bare cement floor and battered sofa. He pointed at a scuffed wooden table: “Whenever he comes home, he works at this desk.” Books and pamphlets that Morsi had left behind were stacked haphazardly: a treatise by Hassan Al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood; a biography of a disciple of the Prophet Mohammed; a manifesto that had been distributed by the Freedom and Justice Party, which the Muslim Brotherhood founded immediately after the revolution that deposed Mubarak. On top of the pile rested a slim volume: Teach Yourself French in Five Days.

I noticed a poster hanging on an otherwise bare wall. It showed the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem above the slogan, in Arabic, “We will return, oh Aqsa.” I asked his cousin how I should interpret these words. “A war will happen again between the Arabs and the Jews,” he told me matter-of-factly, “and we will regain Jerusalem.”

MOHAMED MORSI’S FATHER wasn’t wealthy, but he was unusually determined that his eldest son receive an education beyond the family’s wheat, rice, and cotton fields. According to Alhadi Mohammed, a French teacher and neighbor, Morsi was one of a select few children who were sent to the secondary school in the village of Hehya, outside Al Adwa. When winter rain turned the roads to mud, Morsi’s father packed him on a mule each morning so the boy wouldn’t soil his clothes. “Our father was not educated, but he wanted it for his children,” Said Morsi, Mohamed’s younger brother, told me as we sat together beside the family farm, water buffalo guzzling from a trough behind us. And yet his father’s commitment to secular education in no way diminished his piety. Similarly, Morsi would excel in science at school while remaining a committed Muslim.

This was a delicate balance that the Egyptian state never mastered. At the time of Morsi’s birth in 1951, Egypt was a Westernbacked monarchy under the rule of King Farouk I. But the country’s most potent political force was the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious, anti-colonialist movement founded in 1928 that had gained an estimated half-million members by vehemently opposing the libertine king. In 1952, the Brotherhood backed Gamal Abdel Nasser’s army coup but quickly withdrew its support when Nasser’s secular leanings emerged. Following an assassination attempt against Nasser two years later, the military arrested thousands of Brotherhood members, executing a half-dozen and torturing many more. The Brotherhood went underground. Its influence quietly grew across Egypt—not least in the types of village mosques that the Morsis attended.

Morsi was a diligent student of both science and religion. He attended Cairo University, Egypt’s most elite institution of higher learning, and won an engineering scholarship to the University of Southern California in 1978. “He was really happy, because he was going to acquire his Ph.D., to see the world, and bring more science and education back to Egypt,” Said told me. Morsi lived in the United States for eight years, teaching at California State University in Northridge. Although he admired the American work ethic, he chose to insulate himself from American society, spending much of his time with a small circle of fellow students from Arab countries. “He was critical of how some Muslims act in the United States,” Abdul Aziz Shalaby, Morsi’s childhood friend, told me. “He said that they had a distorted ideology. They were not committed to Islam.” (In a recent interview with The New York Times, Morsi condemned America’s “naked restaurants,” such as Hooters.) It’s not clear exactly when he joined the Brotherhood, but by the time he returned to Egypt in 1985, he was “dedicated to the [Muslim Brotherhood], a changed man,” said Shalaby.

By this time, Brotherhood leaders had decided that violent radicalism was no longer tenable after the group’s decimation by years of crackdowns. The party adopted a more moderate platform, with an emphasis on social justice, the eradication of poverty and corruption, and democracy according to Islamic principles. Anwar Sadat, who had succeeded Nasser in 1970, eventually released hundreds of prisoners and allowed the movement to field candidates for parliament (an approach that continued under Mubarak).

Morsi was meticulous about policy and ambivalent about the West—qualities that made him a natural fit in this newly chastened movement. As the chair of the engineering department of Zagazig University and a well-traveled academic familiar with the United States, he was “a big asset,” said Shalaby. By 2000, he was one of 15 Brotherhood candidates elected to parliament.

Ayman Nour, the founder of the secular Al Ghad Party, sat in front of Morsi in parliament. Soon after Morsi’s arrival, Nour noticed something curious: Parliamentary petitions to President Mubarak routinely disappeared after reaching Morsi. When Nour asked him about it, Morsi admitted pocketing the documents instead of passing them on, explaining that he couldn’t sign until he’d gotten the opinions of all the Brotherhood’s representatives. “Morsi was committed to whatever the Brotherhood dictated,” Nour said.

Morsi quickly realized that, given parliament’s circumscribed powers, rallying the public was often the only way to make an impact. He earned acclaim for his attacks against the corruption of the Mubarak regime, as well as for a popular inquest he led into the 2002 Cairo-Aswan train disaster, which killed at least 350 people. In a display of the Brotherhood’s grassroots power, he rallied a large protest against the Mubarak government’s attempt to alter the constitution. And together with other Brotherhood representatives, he spoke out against literary and cultural practices that he viewed as blasphemous, such as beauty contests. The Brotherhood was growing in power—but so was the government’s suspicion. Mubarak’s security forces began shadowing Morsi, and, as the 2005 parliamentary elections approached, the regime embarked on an anti-Brotherhood intimidation campaign that cost Morsi and many other Brotherhood representatives their seats. Morsi joined the nationwide protests against the fraudulent election and was arrested in May 2006. For seven months, he languished in prison, not knowing whether he would ever work again in the government.

FOUR YEARS AGO, Morsi came as close as he ever has to defining his views on the proper relationship between Islam and politics. Tasked with co-authoring a position paper that spelled out the governing vision of the Guidance Council, the movement’s decision-making body, Morsi produced a deeply conservative tract. Women and Coptic Christians were to be banned from serving as president; a panel of Islamic judges was to serve as the ultimate arbiter of Egyptian law. Mohammed Ali Al Kassas, then a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood Student Section, wrote a memo to the Guidance Office rejecting the document. The idea of the judge’s panel, he told me, was “something like the Shia regime in Iran.”

But the Brotherhood’s stated doctrines could be deceptive. Its leaders were committed to political Islam, but they were also committed to the economic stability that had allowed several of them to earn significant wealth. They wanted a seamless transition, not a revolutionary upheaval—and as far as they were concerned, bargaining with the regime was in the movement’s best interest.

And so Morsi became a strong advocate for Egypt’s free-market economy. His closest political mentor was Khairat Al Shater, a multimillionaire who owned a textile and furniture business with outlets across Cairo. And while Morsi led a traditional life—his wife, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, is a devout Muslim who eschews jewelry and makeup and has stayed at home to take care of their five children—it was hardly an ascetic one. His Cairo home is in a well-off neighborhood populated by other Muslim Brothers.

Morsi’s pragmatic acceptance of a liberal economy wasn’t undergirded by liberal ideals. What tempered his approach to politics wasn’t the belief that all viewpoints were equally deserving of respect, but rather that there were constant impediments to implementing the one truly authoritative viewpoint. Nowhere was this clearer than in his involvement with the dissolution of the Mubarak regime. Morsi and other senior Brotherhood members, believing that the Tahrir Square protests were bound to fail, sought a compromise with the army. (This was perhaps partly motivated by a basic instinct for self-preservation: Several members of the Guidance Council, including Al Shater, were being held in “preventive detention”; Morsi himself spent a short time in custody.)

Like many members of the Guidance Council, Morsi was a generation older than most of the Brotherhood protesters in Tahrir Square. He was also far more willing to cooperate with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (scaf) if doing so might allow the Brotherhood to gain power. Observers say that the military and the Brotherhood remained in constant contact in the weeks following Mubarak’s resignation. They quietly discussed such issues as scheduling elections, writing a constitution, and compiling a list of possible Brotherhood nominees for president. (They even made a deal, which later collapsed, to release Brotherhood leaders in return for stopping members from protesting.) The group “held onto institutional cohesion,” says a Western diplomat. “They were willing to make deals. They were pragmatists playing the big game.”

As one of the party’s most dependable loyalists, Morsi was in line for a reward. In April, scaf surprised the Brotherhood by disqualifying its preferred presidential candidate, Al Shater, on a technicality. Morsi was no one’s idea of a head of state. But the Guidance Council felt confident that he would remain dedicated to the ultimate goals of the Brotherhood—and to the interests of the Guidance Council in particular. As the election approached, the last traces of cooperation between the Muslim Brotherhood and scaf vanished. The army, perhaps sensing the Brotherhood’s support, gave itself new powers that would supersede those of a civilian president. And, in June, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, stacked with Mubarak holdovers, dissolved the newly elected Islamist-led parliament. Islamist protesters called the move a coup. But the military’s enmity only aided Morsi’s campaign. Wavering voters, looking for an independent candidate, saw the military’s skepticism of the Brotherhood’s candidate as an auspicious sign. In June, in the final round of voting, Morsi won the presidency with 52 percent of the vote.

Morsi may have been surprised to find himself running the Arab world’s largest country, but his first major action showed remarkable self-confidence. In August, after masked gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers at a military base in the Sinai, Morsi made a brazen move. With scaf knocked off balance by the debacle, the president acted decisively against the Egyptian army leadership in Cairo, dismissing the army chief of staff and removing the decree limiting presidential powers. Morsi was hailed as a brilliant tactician who had strengthened Egypt’s nascent democracy.

ON NOVEMBER 14, an Israeli drone circling over Gaza City fired a missile at a car carrying Ahmed Al Jabari, the head of Hamas’s military wing. The assassination marked the beginning of what Israel called “Operation Pillar of Defense,” the widespread targeting of Hamas operatives and rocketlaunching sites. As rockets and missiles rained down on both Israel and Gaza, Morsi faced a critical test of whether his pragmatism would trump his ideology.

There were reasons for concern: Hamas is a spin-off of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the two movements have long shared hostility toward the Jewish state. Unlike Mubarak, who despised Hamas and cooperated with Israel on sealing the border with Gaza, Morsi met several times with Hamas leaders and sporadically opened Egypt’s border in defiance of Israel. And several of Morsi’s actions over the summer—such as his freeing of Islamic radicals from Egypt’s prisons and his initial passivity in the face of a Salafist-led breach of the U.S. Embassy wall on September 11—suggested that he was preparing for a major break with Mubarak’s policy of reflexively supporting U.S. and Israeli interests.

But if Morsi has repeatedly demonstrated his sympathy for an Islamist vision of society, his behavior mostly displayed the same commitment to prudence that he developed in his Guidance Council days. In order to protect Egypt’s vulnerable economy, he needed to keep the United States and Europe—the main sources of foreign aid—satisfied. “People in Egypt are looking for a livelihood,” Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Israel’s former defense minister and a Labor Party legislator, said before the resumption of the Gaza conflict. “If he wants to maintain Egypt’s financial resources, he will have to abandon the path of confrontation with Israel.”

Indeed, the Egyptian president became the primary negotiator and interlocutor between Hamas and Israel, cobbling together a cease-fire deal after eight days of bombardments, in which at least 150 Palestinians and six Israelis died. Morsi continued to express his support and sympathy for Hamas, even as he pressed the Islamic militants to make concessions to prevent a wider war. Although many key issues remained unresolved, both sides praised Morsi for his statesmanship.

And yet no sooner had Morsi established a new role as an international statesman than he outraged world leaders, and his own citizens, with a stunning extralegal gambit. On November 22, Morsi declared that presidential laws and decrees “are final and binding and cannot be appealed by any way or to any entity” until Egypt’s new constitution is approved and a parliament elected. The power grab essentially short-circuited the role of the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court, which had threatened to disband the Islamist-dominated assembly responsible for drafting a new constitution. Violence broke out, resulting in more than 500 injuries and at least three deaths. Morsi’s defenders argued that the move was temporary, intended to counter efforts by Mubarak-appointed judges to block his reforms of the country’s institutions. But it looked more like a blatant effort to ram through the constitution without judicial oversight—the act of a power-hungry politician enthralled by his own newfound stature. And Morsi raised suspicions that his overtures to political pluralism—the appointment of a few token women and Coptic Christians to high-level cabinet positions—were just a smokescreen for his real agenda, the consolidation of power to build an Islamic state.

Another concern of Egyptian democrats was the new constitution, which was written by an assembly that was 70 percent Islamist. Hard-line Salafists, who comprised 25 percent of the assembly, backed off many of their initial demands, such as making zakat (charity) as well as the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) constitutional obligations. But the final draft still proved alarming enough to provoke a walkout of secularists and Coptic Christians. The new charter also leaves intact Article 2 from Egypt’s former constitution, which states that only “principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation,” but does not call specifically for sharia’s enforcement. However, the Islamists more rigorously defined those principles, singling out “the scholars of Al Azhar University,” a venerated Islamic institution in Cairo, as the final arbiters of Egyptian law. One article makes it illegal to insult the Prophet Mohammed. Hazy language about women’s rights has raised the fear that the Islamists will now have the leeway to lower the marriage age from 18, decriminalize female genital mutilation, and impose discriminatory property inheritance and divorce laws.

Morsi has a practical incentive to cooperate with the hard-liners. An alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists would ease day-to-day governance; in the next parliament, Islamists, including both the Freedom and Justice Party and the Nour Party, will likely control 60 percent of the seats, a working majority. Morsi has already appointed three Nour Party members to his cabinet, in recognition of their growing clout. Salafist leaders have made forthright demands that Morsi demonstrate his Islamist credentials in return for their support, be it through the implementation of sharia, a confrontational position toward Israel, or other hard-line policies. But Morsi’s early feints toward the Salafists have triggered loud objections from secular and minority Egyptians; any further concessions would undoubtedly spawn violent protests such as those that rocked Cairo and Alexandria in late November. It’s not yet clear how Morsi intends to resolve the conflict.

Ayman Nour, the party founder who organized the secular democrats into a bloc and led the walkout in November, doesn’t think Morsi feels any natural sympathy for liberal ideas. “In my estimation, the Brotherhood are Wahhabis, and the Salafists are Wahhabis, and they have many things in common,” he told me as we sat in the huge living room of his penthouse apartment in Zamalek, an affluent neighborhood whose many bars and active nightlife are symbols of the society that Egypt’s liberals are determined to preserve. Nour was betting that Morsi’s instinctual pragmatism, his lifelong desire to forestall the unpredictable consequences of a real revolution, would stop him from finally giving in to the Salafists. “As president, he swore five times in a single day that Egypt will never become a religious state,” Nour told me.

A hundred miles and a world away from Nour’s penthouse apartment, however, those who have known Morsi the longest say they have little doubt where his true values lie. Sitting beside his fields on the outskirts of Al Adwa, Said Morsi told me that his older brother remains rooted to the uncompromising Islamic beliefs that stamped his childhood and that have guided him throughout his life. “All of the vacations before becoming the president, he would come back here and work the fields, and sit with me, and talk,” he said, smoking a cigarette as the wail of the muezzin began to sound from a few hundred yards away. “In his heart, he belongs to the village.”

Joshua Hammer is the former Newsweek bureau chief in Africa and the Middle East and is the author of three books. This article appeared in the December 20, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “The Riddler.”

*Correction: This piece originally said that the feast that ends Ramadan is Eid Al-Adha. In fact, it is Eid El-Fitr. We regret the error.

Photo credits for collage, clockwise from center: Sander de Wilde/Corbis; Bernat Armangue/AP Photo; Mohamed Abd El Ghany; Amr Abdallah Dalsh; Sherif Abd El Minoem; Mohamed Abd El Ghany/all Reuters; David Degner (2)/Getty Images; Tara Todras-Whitehill; Tomas Munita/The New York Times; Asmaa Waguih /Reuters; Pierluigi Mulas/Redux; Bernat Armangue/AP Photo; Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters; Xinhua/Eyevine/Redux.