Washington’s Two Opinions of Egypt’s Islamist President

There are those who believe Mohamed Morsi will be an enforcer of the Muslim Brotherhood’s strict doctrines. And those who feel he is a moderating force

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Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

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

Washington has a mixed view of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi–at once hopeful and fearful. Those who are in the latter camp believe they know him best. They’ve heard his incendiary rhetoric –  including so-called “truther” theories that the U.S. secretly orchestrated the 911 attack on itself – and they are the most pessimistic that Morsi  is nothing but an Islamist authoritarian in democratic clothing. “Mohamed Morsi’s function inside the Muslim Brotherhood was that of an enforcer. He would weed anyone out who didn’t agree with the Brotherhood’s strict doctrine or tactics,” says Eric Trager, a fellow at the Center for Near East Policy who has interviewed Morsi many times since 2010 as part of his dissertation on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. “Because they trusted him he was also appointed to handle negotiations with the Mubarak regime. They knew he wouldn’t concede anything. He’s not and never has been a moderate.”

Nevertheless, other U.S. officials are hopeful. By early 2011, before he became president, they say Morsi was already moderating his tone to American visitors. “He said exactly the right things on Israel and the peace treaty,” says a U.S. official who participated in meetings with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood at the time. “Whether that’s because he really believed it or because it’s what he thought American interlocutors wanted to hear, it was note worthy.”

(TRANSCRIPT: TIME’s Interview with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi)

In fact, one of the things most cited by Washington politicians when they speak of Morsi is hispolitical skill, his chameleon-like ability to speak convincingly to Americans and Europeans as well as Egypt’s rightwing political parties and the street. “What’s interesting is he’s proven to be a politician who understands the different audiences that he’s speaking to which isn’t always the case for people who’ve been in the opposition for all, if not most, of their lives,” says a White House official. “He understands in Egypt there are very different audiences. There’s also an international community and a regional audience. He’s had a pretty nuanced in understanding how what he says is perceived in different places.”

When speaking to President Obama, Morsi emphasized the seven years he spent studying and teaching in California — all told, more time than former president Hosni Mubarak ever spent in the U.S. He often speaks in English with Obama. And the two men developed a rapport during the Gaza crisis, according to a senior White House official. In a 2:30 a.m. call from Cambodia — the president was midway through a swing through Asia — Obama encouraged Morsi to feel free to callback whenever he needed no matter the hour, the official said. The next morning, as Obama was leaving Cambodia, Morsi called back and Obama expressed his condolences to Morsi for his sister’s death on Nov. 19 after a long battle with cancer.

When you ask Administration officials what Morsi is like in person, the words “pragmatic” and “practical” spring up most often. After Obama dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Asia to Egypt to broker a cease-fire in Gaza, Clinton had a 75-minute meeting with Morsi , according to a State Department official. She brought with her a set of changes to the Egyptian cease-fire proposal based on her consultations with the Israelis in Jerusalem. According to the official, Morsi grabbed the sheet of paper noting the changes and began reading it in English, offering his opinion on each issue: where he agreed, where he felt edits needed to be made. His national security advisor acted as stenographer, writing down the changes. By the close of the meeting the two had come to the deal that ended up becoming formalized exactly as they’d agreed, the official said.

Still, political instincts can only take you so far. The Arab Spring that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt was fundamentally an economic protest. People took to thestreets demanding jobs and food and benefits. In the two years since, Egypt’s economy, already one of the lowest GDPs on the planet, has only sunk lower as revenues from lost tourism and foreign investment have hit home. Morsi ’s job first and foremost, must be to restore the economy, says House rules committee Chairman David Dreier, a long time Egypt expert who was an observer during Egypt’s first free parliamentary elections on Nov. 28, 2011. “It was a very inspiring time and the aspirations of the Egyptian people have not been met in large part due to the lack of gross domestic growth,” Dreier says. “When I talked to Egyptians out there casting their votes, the Muslim Brotherhood promised jobs and promised to get the economy going and there’s been too little attention paid out there to getting Egypt’s economy back on track. I wish there’d been more of a laser-like focus on this.” Dreier has introduced a free trade resolution with Egypt in the U.S. Congress, but says the Morsi government remains the biggest hurdle to forging such a deal.

(MORE: Should Mohamed Morsi be TIME’s Person of the Year?)

“The underlying forces here can basically tear down any regime almost irrespective of how well it’s led,” says Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Cordesman cites history as Morsi ’s greatest enemy. Rarely has a post-revolutionary leader survived in a democracy. Starting with the French in 1848 and marching through post-colonization, “almost all the leaders who revolt are overthrown in turn,” Cordesman notes. “The process of change [in Egypt] will play out over a decade and no matter how competent the leader is, he can’t cope with the forces that work against him, the forces that brought him there, so he likely falls or he chooses an authoritarian path.”

To secularist protesters who filled Tahrir Square this week, Morsi has already made an attempt at the authoritarian path, trying to grab power from the last independent branch of the Egyptian government, the judiciary. Thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in protest and Morsi was forced to dial back the scope of his ambitions. The U.S. ambassador to Egypt had several meetings with Egyptian officials expressing concern as lawmakers back in the states took to the television news channels threatening to cut off aid to Egypt. Clinton spoke with Egypt’s foreign minister on Monday morning to express her concerns and to talk through how to resolve the tensions. “The art of being a successful leader is to understand that this isn’t just about one person, there’s a role for the judiciary to play, there’s a role for civil society to play, for the press to play, for the legislature to play,” says a State Department official. “He can succeed as a president if he understands that ultimately it’s not all on his shoulders.”

Egypt still enjoys some kind of official checks and balances, says a White House official, despite the relative lack of government (until the constitution is rewritten and ratified, there is no legislature). “Oftentimes the U.S. is looked to somehow referee the politics of Egypt but that’s not our role. Our role is to support a set of principles and let the Egyptians decide how that plays out and you saw that happen,” the official continued. “We’re at a moment right now where we will soon learn what kind of leader [Morsi] is because this current episode is very much a test of his capacity to work effectively with all the various interests in Egypt… And to live up to the expectations of the Egyptians and international community.”

PHOTOS: Thousands in Cairo Protest Morsi’s Decree