Earlier this month, thousands of people rallied in the Mansoura stadium at a campaign event for the Muslim Brotherhood’s last-minute presidential nominee.
After a brief and flattering introduction by one of his campaigners, Mohamed Morsy stood up, waving his hands to the cheering audience. In the background, the campaign’s song was echoing across the stadium.
“We are all one hand against injustice and tyranny. God willing Morsy will be the winner,” chanted a campaigner and the audience repeated after him.
“We will all carry the [Muslim Brotherhood’s] project with Shater or with Morsy,” reverberated the hymn, in reference to the group’s strongman Khairat al-Shater, who sat next to Morsy on the stage covered with a cloth on embroidered with the names of both men.
This scene summarizes the controversy of Morsy’s candidacy. A few hours before the nomination period ended, the Muslim Brotherhood submitted Morsy’s papers as a back-up candidate in case Shater, its primary nominee and most influential leader, was disqualified for his unresolved criminal record.
Since then, Morsy’s nomination has been held as evidence of the group’s indecisiveness and has provoked numerous jokes. Satire popped up on social media, dubbing Morsy “the spare” presidential hopeful or “Shater’s double.”
Almost a week later, Shater was officially excluded from the race by the Presidential Elections Commission and Morsy became the group’s sole candidate. But the commission’s decision did not sideline Shater completely. He has been touring the country with his replacement and is introduced as the architect of Morsy's "Nahda" platform (the Arabic word for renaissance).
Morsy was born in 1951 in the Delta province of Sharqiya. He studied engineering at Cairo University before he went to the University of South California to pursue a PhD. According to his resume posted on a Muslim Brotherhood’s website, Morsy worked as assistant professor at California State University Northridge in the early 1980s.
He returned to Egypt in the mid-1980s to teach at Zagazig University’s Faculty of Engineering.
Unlike many leading brothers, Morsy’s legacy does not emanate from many years of imprisonment or decades of sacrifice to the long-persecuted organization. His name began to echo within the Muslim Brotherhood only in the early 2000s after his victory in parliamentary elections.
Since then, his ascent has been related to his ties with Shater. For many insiders, Morsy’s complacent nature and unquestionable commitment to the group’s internal discipline and order gained him Shater’s support.
"For Shater, being trustworthy and obedient is the most important thing," said Abdel Rahman Ayyash, a former brother. He told Egypt Independent adding that Morsy meets the requirement.
Shater, who always preferred to remain backstage, empowered Morsy and pushed him to the organization’s forefront. With Shater’s blessing, Morsy eventually seized the group’s most crucial portfolios including the political and media divisions. In April 2011, the Shura Council, the group’s top decision-making body, chose Morsy as the president of the Freedom and Justice Party, their brand new political party.
"Shater always prefers to entrust people who are close to him with crucial positions and this is why Morsy is president of [the Muslim Brotherhood's] party," added Ayyash.
Tense relationship with youth
Morsy is considered one of the conservative voices within Egypt’s oldest Islamist organization. His power put him in confrontation with the group’s progressive youth on several occasions.
When the group issued its political platform in 2007, some young brothers had decried on the blogosphere three controversial clauses that denied women and Copts the right to run for president and stipulated that laws should be vetted by a board of religious scholars.
In a bid to contain the outrage of the organization’s young activists, Morsy sat down with these bloggers. However, his discourse alienated them further.
According to Ayyash, a 22-year-old blogger who attended the meeting, Morsy said in a firm tone: “This is how we think and this is how we understand Islam.” After the revolution, the group dropped the three clauses.
Last year, the tension between Morsy and the group’s youths intensified as the latter became overtly defiant of the leaders’ commands.
The revolution emboldened many young brothers and prompted them to challenge the leaders’ orders on several occasions during the 18-day-uprising that culminated in Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. Young brothers had refused orders not to take to the streets on 25 January 2011 and to withdraw from the square during the Battle of the Camel.
Morsy called for a meeting with the group’s representatives in the then-vigorous Revolution Youth Coalition only a few days after Mubarak had stepped down, according to Ahmed Abdel Gawad, a 35-year old brother who was among the attendees.
“It was a strange meeting,” said Abdel Gawad. “It seemed as if he came for brainwashing purposes and to justify the mistakes made by the group during the revolution, such as why they did not take to the street on 25 January and why they agreed to hold negotiations with [intelligence chief] Omar Suleiman.”
However, towards the end of the meeting, Morsy insinuated that the organization was not happy about the youths’ rebellious attitudes, according to Abdel Gawad.
Meanwhile, young brothers were heavily involved in further protests that demanded the sacking of the cabinet and the uprooting of the remnants of Mubarak's regime. And they became regular guests on news talk shows.
"For the Muslim Brotherhood, to see some of their followers take all that space and act outside the parameters of the group is a red line," explained Abdel Gawad. Eventually, Morsy sent his assistant to meet again with young brothers a week later, Abdel Gawad said. This assistant was assigned to convey a particular message.
“The assistant had a confrontational tone, and he said that we had already crossed the limits,” recounted Gawad.
Upset at the tone, the young brothers met with the Supreme Guide and demanded that Morsy no longer be the intermediary between them and the leadership, he said.
As soon as Morsy caught wind of this demand, a smear campaign was launched against them within the organization, said Abdel Gawad. “Morsy perceived the [demand] as an attempt to marginalize him,” he said.
Almost a month later, the stand-off between Morsy and revolutionary young brothers took a new turn when he refused to endorse the conference they held to express their views on the future of the organization. Morsy told the local media then that the organization had nothing to do with the conference. Later on, many young brothers, including Abdel Gawad, were expelled from the group on grounds of violating the leadership's decisions.
Manufacturing a hero
Since Shater’s disqualification, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official discourse has portrayed Morsy as “a politically savvy” candidate, “a symbol of the revolution,” and a sponsor of the group’s “Nahda” platform. The campaign stresses that Morsy was imprisoned twice under Mubarak.
In 2006, Morsy was detained for seven months on grounds of participating in a protest denouncing Mubarak’s interference with the judiciary. On the early morning of 28 January 2011, Morsy was arrested along with several Muslim Brotherhood leaders as part of Mubarak’s last desperate measure to preempt the sweeping protests that were set to kick off on that day.
The group’s official discourse invokes Morsy’s parliamentarian background to prove his commitment to democracy, opposition to Mubarak’s regime and defense of Sharia.
During his parliamentary tenure from 2000 to 2005, Morsy initiated several motions to expose government corruption. He also called for several political reforms including the abolition of the notorious political parties law, the empowerment of municipal councils, the lifting of the state of emergency and all restrictions on the press and student political activities. Morsy was also an outspoken critic of the Egypt-Israel gas deal.
His parliamentary record bears evidence of his social conservatism. He had criticized the government for allowing the circulation of magazines with “nude” covers and the broadcast of obscene music videos. As an MP, he had also dismissed the Miss Egypt contest as contradictory of “social norms, Islamic Sharia and the constitution.” He also had filed an information request alleging that there are pro-American forces within the government that seek to weaken Al-Azhar and religious education.
A murky future
Less than a month stands between Egyptians and the start of the presidential poll. Most observers expect no candidate to secure more than 50 percent of the votes and rise victorious from the first round, so a run-off is expected to take place on 15 and 16 June between an Islamist candidate and, most likely, secular nominee Amr Moussa.
So far, Morsy's chances to survive the first phase seem slim. The 61-year-old engineer has failed to garner the support of various Islamist factions.
His campaign was dealt a blow on Saturday when the Alexandria-based Salafi Dawah and its political wing the Nour Party announced that they would support Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, an Islamist candidate and former Muslim Brother known for his relatively moderate outlook.
Despite his relatively liberal attitudes, Egypt’s largest Salafi bloc said it backed him because he has a better chance of defeating Moussa.
Abouel Fotouh is also expected to attract the votes of many young brothers who admire his political discourse and charisma.
Most recent polls prove that Morsy is unlikely to defeat Abouel Fotouh. A poll published last week by a local think tank showed that 54.4 percent of voters have not decided yet on their candidate. Abouel Fotouh had the support of 15.5 percent of the decided voters versus 1.5 percent for Morsy. Another poll released Monday by Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies also showed that Morsy had the support of only 3.6 percent versus 27.3 percent for Abouel Fotouh.