Morsi’s Moment

Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi: Peacemaker, savior, tyrant?

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Nadav Kander for TIME
Nadav Kander for TIME

To the Top via Los Angeles
Morsi’s path to the presidency is unique, not only for Egypt but also for a region where leaders tend to come from royalty or the military. Born into modest means in a village north of Cairo, Morsi escaped the dreary fate of millions of his impoverished countrymen by excelling at academics. An engineering degree in Cairo was followed by a seven-year stint in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, when he got a Ph.D. in materials science at the University of Southern California and then worked as an assistant professor at California State University at Northridge. His California years left Morsi with an abiding fondness for the Trojans, USC’s football team, and the nickname Mo, an old friend said. Two of his five children were born in the U.S. and are American citizens; he laughs at the suggestion that they will one day be qualified to run for the U.S. presidency.

When he returned to Egypt in 1985, he became active in the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group known for its strong anti-American positions. But Morsi retains a warm nostalgia for his former home. “I don’t like it when people in my country say, ‘America is against us,’ because I know [the situation] is different,” he says, citing the friendliness he encountered in California.

Back in Egypt, while teaching at an Egyptian university, Morsi rose swiftly in the ranks of the Brotherhood: he would serve in parliament, then become something of a political enforcer within the group. After Mubarak’s fall last year made the prospect of a President from the Brotherhood almost inevitable, Morsi’s name was rarely mentioned. When he emerged this year as the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, Morsi was mocked by rivals as “the spare tire,” an unsubtle allusion to the fact that he was not his party’s preferred standard bearer. But the party’s first choice, Khairat al-Shater, a millionaire businessman and Morsi’s mentor, was disqualified because of a criminal record stemming from charges, likely fabricated, during the Mubarak years. When attempts to reinstate al-Shater failed, Morsi filed his nomination papers on the last possible day.

(PHOTOS: Thousands in Cairo Protest Morsi’s Decree)

Although he is avuncular up close, Morsi proved a colorless campaigner: his stump speeches were dull, he skipped the sole televised debate, and even his own commercials seemed designed to hide him from view. He won less than a quarter of the vote in May’s first round of balloting, and it was only the Brotherhood’s disciplined political organization that allowed him to squeak through the runoff election on June 16 and 17 with 51.7%.

Lacking a ringing mandate, much discernible charisma or experience in political combat, Morsi seemed poorly equipped to take on either the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the cabal of generals that had run the country since Mubarak’s ouster, or the judiciary made up mostly of judges appointed by the former dictator. After the runoff vote but before the results were announced, the Constitutional Court declared Egypt’s first free parliamentary elections illegal, empowering SCAF to dissolve the body where Morsi’s party had a plurality of seats. The generals also announced an interim decree that insulated the military from civilian control and effectively gave the generals veto rights over any new constitution. If SCAF was determined to undermine Morsi’s authority, he was unlikely to get any help from liberal and secular parties, which have long feared the Brotherhood’s Islamist agenda. Morsi looked like a lame duck even before he had been sworn in. “My expectations from him could not have been lower,” says Heba Morayef, Egypt director of Human Rights Watch. “His hands seemed completely tied.”

But they were not. On assuming the presidency, he displayed a previously hidden talent for deft public stagecraft: during his inaugural speech in Tahrir Square, he opened his jacket to reveal that he, unlike Mubarak, didn’t need a bulletproof vest, suggesting he was a man of the people, Then, less than two months after his swearing-in, he astonished both his allies and his critics by replacing several top generals and making himself SCAF’s chairman. How he pulled this off remains something of a mystery: some Egyptians suspect Morsi made a Faustian pact with the top brass. Others speculate he found some incriminating evidence against them. It’s more likely he did an end run around the old guard and appealed to the second-tier officers who were weary of waiting for their turn to rule.

MORE: Egypt’s Morsi: Has He Started Something He Can’t Finish?

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