On June 29, 12 days after he was elected president of Egypt, Muhammad Mursi ascended a Tahrir Square stage and issued a dramatic pledge to guard the revolution launched there the preceding spring. Mursi opened his jacket, revealing that he wore no bulletproof vest, thumped his chest and yelled, “I fear no one but God!”
This leading Muslim Brother aimed not only to affirm his Islamist credentials but also to declare his independence of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). That unpopular junta had been ruling Egypt since Husni Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011. But many Egyptians doubted the new president’s revolutionary bona fides, not to speak of his commitment to democratic principles. Already in early July, activists had posted a “Mursi meter” online to monitor the follow-through on his campaign promises. After his first 100 days, they reported that he had achieved only ten of 64. At that point, demonstrators in Tahrir began to label the new boss same as the old — “Muhammad Mursi Mubarak” — a refrain that only grew louder after November 22, when he issued a partisan decree arrogating almost all important prerogatives of state to himself.
Even before this edict, the accounts of Egypt’s first civilian president strained to peer into his soul: Who is this man, and what does he believe? Is he strong or weak? As the Muslim Brothers’ backup presidential candidate, dubbed “the spare tire” by the Egyptian press, Mursi was unfamiliar to many.
Muhammad Mursi, 61, grew up in the impoverished Delta province of al-Sharqiyya and married a cousin. He studied engineering and acquired a Ph.D. in that field from the University of Southern California. Two of his five children were born in the United States. He took a tenure-track job at Cal State-Fullerton before returning with his family to al-Sharqiyya. Mursi resumed teaching at the university in Zaqaziq, his home province’s largest town, and represented this district in Parliament from 2000 to 2005. In those years, he led a bloc of 17 Brother MPs (all elected as independents, since the Islamist group was outlawed) and rose within the organization’s ranks. State security interference robbed Mursi of his seat in a December 2005 runoff. In scenes typical of late Mubarak-era elections, riot police blocked the entrances to polling stations while thugs released from prison attacked would-be voters in the streets, as tear gas wafted in the air. At his campaign headquarters, Mursi told supporters that justice would eventually prevail. He was subsequently arrested at least twice, in May 2006 and again during the uprising against Mubarak. But he was also one of the Brother delegates who met with ‘Umar Sulayman, fleetingly Mubarak’s vice president, at the failed “national dialogue” of February 6, 2011 — an attempt to end the popular revolt.
“The spare tire” is often derided as a bland and uncharismatic, a follower, not a leader. But to focus on Mursi’s personality and personal history is to miss the deeper dynamics at play in post-Mubarak Egypt.
The Society of Muslim Brothers was not a revolutionary movement under Mubarak or his predecessor Anwar al-Sadat. Frequently harassed and arrested, the Brothers were molded into a force of acquiescence rather than principled resistance. They absorbed the logic of the state and agreed to couch their opposition in the state’s preferred language. It should be no surprise, then, that the Brothers were unready to act in revolutionary ways during the SCAF-led transition or after Mursi’s election.
After Mubarak’s fall, the Brothers won control of Parliament and the presidency, but without an overwhelming mandate. In the June presidential runoff, Mursi won 51 percent of the vote to Ahmad Shafiq’s 49 percent, with Shafiq representing not the spirit of revolt but the so-called fuloul or “remnants” of the ancien regime. This non-choice for Egyptians was manufactured, but it has structured the Brothers’ choices nonetheless. It has inclined the Islamists toward accommodation with the existing state — including the army and security apparatus — rather than with revolutionary demands for a more inclusive politics. As Mursi and the Brothers blended into the state, they came to view the ancien regime as partners to be cooperated with until they could be supplanted.
During Mursi’s first six weeks in office, SCAF leader Field Marshal Husayn Tantawi thumbed his nose at the new president on a near-daily basis. Tantawi made sure that Mursi’s formal handover of power took place at the Huckstep army base — site of numerous military trials of Brothers during the Mubarak years. The field marshal skipped cabinet meetings, so as not to appear subordinate to a civilian, and he stirred up anti-Brother sentiments in the press. An August 11 article in al-Dustour implied that the military should mount a coup to prevent the state’s “Brother-ization” (akhwanat al-dawla).
Mursi’s countermeasures ended badly. He tried to bypass the Supreme Constitutional Court ruling in July that disbanded the freely elected parliament. In the ensuing showdown, the state apparatus, the secular elite and many revolutionaries, accused him of seeking to establish his own dictatorship. Mursi meekly yielded. Yet without a parliament, he was left open to being blamed for Egypt’s every problem.
Pressure came from other directions as well. Mursi capitulated to salafis, for instance, when he called for Sheikh ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman’s release from a US prison. The Constituent Assembly appointed to draft a new constitution was rightly characterized as bending to salafi wishes. As one salafi leader told al-Ahram in October, “The Brothers need a coalition with the [salafi] Nour Party much than we need an alliance with them…. The stress and pressure is not on our shoulders; it is on the Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party’s shoulders. We are more free.”
The state apparatus, meanwhile, dragged its feet on Mursi’s initiatives. They resisted his attempt to reshuffle the editors of the semi-official newspapers. In late October, Mursi tried for the first time to put Mubarak’s prosecutor-general, ‘Abd al-Magid Mahmoud, out to pasture. He was again forced to back down, succeeding on his second try only because the move was buried amidst the other elements of his controversial constitutional declaration. There has been no reform of the Interior Ministry, and no accountability to speak of for the police’s many abuses.
President Barack Obama has had his own points of disagreement with Mursi. Overall, continuity has reigned in the US-Egyptian relationship — precisely because the Brothers are not revolutionaries. But in September, amidst his reelection campaign, Obama chose not to meet with Mursi during the Egyptian’s inaugural trip to the UN General Assembly. In the wake of protests at the US Embassy in Cairo against the Islamophobic film fragment The Innocence of Muslims, Obama openly wondered whether Egypt was an ally or an enemy. In a retaliatory interview with the New York Times, Mursi replied that it depended on the definition of an ally. The new president boosted his reputation in Washington a great deal by brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas just in time for Thanksgiving.
Yet, until his November 22 decree expanding presidential powers, no incident fueled as much debate in Egypt about Mursi as the cascade of events following an August 7 bombing in Sinai, in which 17 soldiers died. Acting swiftly to capitalize on popular anger, Mursi removed the heads of intelligence and military intelligence, as well as the SCAF’s four most public faces, Tantawi among them. Many media outlets called it “Mursi’s coup.” Others drew analogies to Sadat’s “corrective revolution” targeting the Nasserist elite in 1971. Nearly everyone portrayed Mursi as a lone David defeating an entrenched Goliath. The field marshal and chief of staff were reportedly caught entirely by surprise. This narrative persists despite the more likely story reported in al-Ahram, namely, that junior SCAF generals ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and Muhammad al-‘Assar approached Mursi with the tantalizing opportunity to make himself look strong. “Mursi’s coup” was a preemptive strike by these officers against their superiors’ developing notion that the military could continue to govern Egypt openly and directly. Most of the army, with its massive economic holdings and unaccountable influence on policy, was eager to retreat from the glare of public scrutiny. In taking the spotlight off the SCAF, the military concluded a pact with Mursi and the Brothers that leaves most of the Mubarak-era state intact.
Mursi’s constitutional declaration and Egypt’s new constitution, passed by referendum in December, support this assertion. The declaration suggested that individual Interior Ministry personnel be retried for violent acts committed during the initial uprising, meaning that deeper reform of the security sector (a central revolutionary demand) is not in the cards. More egregious is what the constitution promises to Egypt’s most influential institution — the army. Articles 197 and 198 enshrine guarantees not only that the military budget will remain outside legislative scrutiny, but also that Parliament cannot promulgate laws that impinge upon the armed forces’ interests. The new National Defense Council, stocked with generals, will work in concert with the chief executive, rather than for him. Lastly, the military maintains the right to try civilians in cases of perceived harm to the armed forces. Mursi has overseen ratification of a status quo national charter that actually allows for expansion of the Mubarak-era state.
Mursi’s tenure to date, indeed, reinforces the thesis that Mubarak’s ouster was “half-revolution, half-coup.” An incumbent was ejected and selected cronies — such as Gamal Mubarak’s neoliberal reformers and ex-Interior Minister Habib al-‘Adli — were thrown to the wolves. But changes at the top have not translated into structural change; the largest and best-organized opposition force, the Muslim Brothers, has largely been integrated into the ancien regime. The protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere are a wild card. But barring a shift in the balance of power between the reconstituted elites and revolutionary forces, the Brother-status quo coalition is poised to dominate Egypt, irrespective of who the president is, whence he hails or what his stated plans for national rebirth may be.