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Profile of Egypt’s New President Mohamed Morsi

By Samer Shehata

Who is Mohamed Morsi?

 Mohamed Morsi Issa el Ayat is a former chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and a long-time leader in the Muslim Brotherhood. He is a trained engineer educated at the University of Southern California. After winning the presidency on June 24, 2012, Morsi resigned as head of the FJP and from the Muslim Brotherhood to demonstrate--symbolically--that he is no longer the head of a political party. “I am president for all Egyptians,” he said in his comment on June 24.

How powerful is Morsi within the Muslim Brotherhood—and will he be the real decision-maker as president?

Morsi has been a leading figure in the movement for more than a decade. But he is not regarded as the most powerful figure. Khairet el Shater is the Muslim Brotherhood’s Deputy Guide, chief financier and primary strategist; he is widely considered to be the most influential strategist. Shater was the Muslim Brotherhood’s first presidential candidate until he was disqualified by the Supreme Presidential Election Commission on technical grounds; he had earlier been imprisoned on political grounds for several years.

What leadership experience has Morsi had? What are the indications of what he’d be like as president?

Morsi has had some leadership experience. He was elected to parliament in 2000 from Zagazig, where he taught at Zagazig University. He headed the Muslim Brotherhood’s small parliamentary delegation between 2000 and 2005. He ran for re-election in 2005 but lost, which was widely attributed to fraud during the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. He continued to be deeply involved in the Brotherhood’s political and legislative activities, even after he left parliament.

Morsi has also been a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, the highest elected body within the organization, and served as the group’s spokesperson. He also headed the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party from its establishment in June 2011 until the presidential election results were announced on June 24, 2012.

What are Morsi’s views on:

Sharia or Islamic law: Like most Islamists, Morsi accepts the Brotherhood’s longstanding position that Sharia should be the main source of legislation. But Article Two of the previous constitution, introduced by former President Anwar Sadat, has actually stipulated for the past 30 years that all laws should be in compliance with Sharia. His party’s position has been that Article Two of the constitution should not be changed.

The more complicated questions is how Sharia is interpreted—and whether to legislate provisions to implement Islamic law. The president can also not act alone. New constitutional provisions would require introduction by the constituent assembly or approval in a national referendum. But the newly elected legislature was dissolved after a Supreme Constitutional Court decision in June. So as it stands today, he does not have the  lone authority to change the law.

Minority rights: Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party have frequently spoken of equal rights for all Egyptians regardless of religion, gender, or background—a theme repeated in his first official speech to the nation on June 24. But many liberal voters, opposition parties, critics and Christians question whether the Islamists are genuinely committed to absolute political equality between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s draft party platform released in 2007 stated that women and Christians could hold all positions in the land except the position of president (in a presidential system) or prime minister (in a parliamentary system). These controversial stipulations were removed from the party’s 2011 party platform, which mentions equal rights. However, Coptic Christians and other minorities are concerned that Islamist politics will turn them into second-class citizens.

Women are also concerned about whether Morsi and the FJP will change family laws—including the right to divorce, custody laws, the legal age of marriage, the ban on female genital mutilation—to their detriment.

Relations with the West, particularly the United States: Morsi is unlikely to push for any serious changes short term. The Freedom and Justice Party has recently been pragmatic about the importance of the United States as well as the reality (and military power) of Israel.

At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood and its official political arm– like the majority of Egypt’s 85 million people – believe that foreign policy under President Mubarak was weak and beholden to the Washington and Tel Aviv. They advocate a strong, independent Egypt in the region. They call for relations between Egypt and all other countries to be based on “mutual respect” and mutual interest.”

The Camp David peace treaty with Israel: Nothing is likely to change soon on to the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty or relations with Israel. After Mubarak was ousted, the Muslim Brotherhood vowed to respect all of Egypt’s international treaties. In Morsi’s first official speech after winning the presidency, he repeated the same pledge--twice.

Yet even before Mubarak’s ouster, many in Egypt called for new negotiations on specifics in the treaty, including security provisions in the tense Sinai Peninsula. Like other parties, the Freedom and Justice party has said that it wants to renegotiate troop deployments in zones A, B, and C in Sinai for both symbolic and practical reasons. Egypt’s security situation has deteriorated in the last 16 months, with  many cases of arms smuggling and other illegal activities across Egypt’s borders.

Although the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty is likely to survive, Morsi’s victory is also likely to produce stronger support for Palestinian rights, particularly in Gaza. He is also likely to give at least rhetorical support to Hamas, which grew out of Egypt’s Brotherhood. He may be more willing to criticize Israeli actions against Palestinians than the Mubarak regime or even the current Supreme Council of the Armed Forces have been.

How does Islam shape his positions, both personally and professionally?

Morsi is from rural Egypt. His background is somewhat traditional and he is deeply religious. Islam profoundly shapes his worldview. But Morsi is also a politician and a pragmatist; these sensibilities are likely to play a much larger role in his political calculations and decisions than his faith.

What is most striking about him from personal interviews?

Morsi does not appear to be a glad-handing politician who enjoys the limelight. He seems to be more adept as a high-profile organizer and administrator of political strategy. He is not a particularly gifted speaker, and his language has the feel and rhythm of a religious sermon more than a straightforward political speech.

What is known about his personal life and influences?

He was born in 1951 in the northeast Delta governorate of Sharqeyya. He finished his undergraduate and masters’ degree in engineering at Cairo University. In 1978, Morsi moved to the United States to pursue a doctorate in engineering at the University of Southern California. He completed his PhD in 1982 and stayed on to teach at California State University at Northridge until 1985.

Two of his five children were born in the United States and hold American citizenship, which briefly became a political issue during the campaign. (This is not illegal, although Egyptian election law does not allow presidential candidates to have held a foreign nationality. It also does not allow their spouses or parents to have held a foreign nationality).

Morsi is conservative personally and politically. He is in the Muslim Brotherhood’s conservative faction, along with Khairat el Shater, Mahmoud Ghozlan and Mahmoud Ezzat. This group was often contrasted with more progressive Brotherhood figures, such as Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh (who was expelled from the group in the spring of 2011 after declaring his candidacy for president), Mohamed Habib (a former deputy guide until 2009 who also left the movement) and Essam El Erian (a vice president of the FJP and former member of parliament).

The following is a link to Samer Shehata’s chapter on the Muslim Brotherhood.