Who is Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist leader of the old new Egypt?
As soon as it was clear that Mohammed Morsi was going to be Egypt’s new president, press sources in Cairo fell all over each other trying to get information on this new star member of the Moslem Brotherhood. He was said to have chaired the political committee of the Brotherhood’s governing “Guidance Council,” though no one seemed to know who else was on that committee. What was clear was that Dr. Morsi earned his Ph.D. in engineering at the University of Southern California, had worked in Los Angeles, and that he was a serious man not limited in his intellectual outlook.
At the same time there generally seemed no doubt that Khairat el-Shater was still going to be the principal figure in the leadership hierarchy of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood organization after the General Guide (leader) Mohammed Badie. Shater, however, was denied eligibility for high public office by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on the technical basis of a previous prison sentence during the Mubarak era. Morsi has become the compromise candidate in the urgent search for a steadfastly Islamic leader who also would have acceptability on the international scene — a factor of particular importance to the Brotherhood’s ambitions.
The reality is that Khairat el-Shater remains a principal figure in the new formulation of Egyptian politics and a clear leader in the Brotherhood. In an attempt to broaden their base, the Islamic organization has created the Freedom & Justice Party as their political vehicle, but it has little structural power as yet. There is the mistaken belief in the non-Moslem world that the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt is made up of mostly poor and working class individuals. In fact the membership is very diverse, spanning all socio-economic sectors. The F&J Party is aimed to reflect that fact.
The Brotherhood organization itself is very wealthy, as are many of its top leaders. Men like el-Shater, who it is said heads the Cairo region, is reportedly a millionaire who owns a thriving furniture business, among other ventures. More importantly in terms of grassroots strength is the very active program of social services provided country-wide by the Moslem Brotherhood and serviced by its members and supporters.
Three actions early on in the Morsi administration have shown the aggressive priorities of the initial phases of his government. The first thing that the newly elected president did was to fly to Riyadh shortly after his first week in office to meet with King Abdullah and key Saudi officials. More than anything else this indicated the Sunni solidarity and close Egyptian/Saudi cooperation that could be expected from the new Cairo leadership.
The next action to occur was the dismissal of the top command of the military including the Mubarak holdover, Defense Minister Tantawi, and Army Chief of Staff, General Sami Enan. This definitive move, clearly with the support of the younger commanders, restored the presidential powers just limited in the beginning of the summer by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
This action restoring civilian authority received broad popular support. But the third action that has solidified President Morsi’s political status was taken in Tehran where the Egyptian and Saudi delegations to the Non-Aligned Conference formed a united front against Iranian efforts to gain backing for the Syrian government of Bashar al Assad and the Shia-supportive position of Iran’s allies. This sent a message throughout the Arab world that, under the Islamist leadership of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt would not lose any of its regional clout nor bow to pressure from Tehran.
There are two main circumstances, however, that stand out with negative characteristics in regard to Egypt’s future. The first is the absence of a constitution. The newly created constitutional assembly has not indicated when it will be able to agree upon a draft. This leaves President Morsi in the extremely powerful position of being able to perform his executive activities without constitutional restraint. The potential for autocratic rule is there in the absence of clear restraints even if the personal proclivity of Egypt’s new president does not appear for the moment to lean in that direction.
The second issue bothersome to many analysts is the absence of a reasonable spectrum of political leanings in the presidential cabinet. Mohammed Morsi has made sure that the principal posts in his government are held by Islamists. When one recognizes that the popular vote was only 51.73% in favor of Dr. Morsi, there is a potential of serious popular “push back” from the lack of at least a marginal attempt to create a unity government.
The reality would appear to be that the Egyptian military prefers a strong central government just as long as the Armed Forces are allowed to control their sphere of interest. Apparently this is exactly the direction in which Mohammed Morsi and his compatriots in the Moslem Brotherhood are aimed. Not that different from the Mubarak example it seems — except that the Brotherhood is now running the show. As Rafiq Khuri wrote in Beirut’s Al Anwar, in a sense a military pharaoh has been replaced by an Islamic one.