Just a year after Mohamed Morsi’s birth in 1951, Egypt’s decades-long monarchy rule was overthrown in a military-led coup under Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Nasser would go on to pilot Egypt through a fitful transition into socialism, becoming a lasting symbol for the pan-Arab ideology unfurling across the region. Morsi would go on to join the Muslim Brotherhood, the very group that supported Nasser’s revolution but then buckled under a crackdown once his government took office.
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Initially a collaborator during the era of independence, the Muslim Brotherhood saw its members shunted into jail cells as Nasser’s secular regime swung from tolerance to state repression in its treatment of the group.
But the Muslim Brotherhood, often regarded as one of the most important political organisations in the Arab world, survived the crackdown under Nasser, retaining a political buoyancy that kept it afloat throughout decades of regime change.
After Anwar Sadat took power and folded back on many of Nasser’s socialist policies, the Brotherhood was once more eased into Egypt’s political scene as a counterweight for the clout of Sadat’s leftist rivals.
Having gained its re-entrance, the group cobbled together a significant popular base among Egypt’s lower middle and middle classes and began seeking out backdoor channels of power.
Morsi came of political age among the Muslim Brotherhood generation that had protested on college campuses in the 1970s – a widespread student movement, and a foreshadowing of the Egyptian youth’s role in the later 2011 revolution. The group formally adopted a mandate of democracy in 1995, and its influence leaked into professional work syndicates and circles of social welfare work.
“There was a generation of the Muslim Brotherhood that came of age in the late 70s and 80s that was far more engaged in society,” said Abdullah al-Arian, assistant professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar who specialises on modern Islamist movements.
“They believed that the best way to expand the organisation’s mission was by filling certain necessary roles in society. They started schools, ran mosques, [and] ran medical centres,” added al-Arian, noting that gaps in government services allowed the organisation to extend its reach.
Yet Morsi was not among the group that demonstrated on college campuses and, later, posed an ideological challenge to the organisation’s older, more insulated generation.
“He wasn’t a student leader; he joined the Brotherhood relatively late,” said Al-Arian. “Instead, he was what you might call a loyal member who deferred to the senior leadership, and because of his loyalty was rewarded through continuous promotion.”
Later, Morsi was part of the cohort that wedged a space for the Muslim Brotherhood under Mubarak’s government, earning himself a seat in Parliament in 2000. Once a secretive organisation, knitted out of the strong bonds of mentor-disciple relationships, the Muslim Brotherhood was morphing into a multivocal political platform with an emphasis on social justice.
Under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed what scholar Mona el-Ghobasy calls “de facto toleration”. Strict election rules made it impossible for MP candidates to run as independents, effectively tilting all the political clout to Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
Yet by making alliances with other parties, the group gained a substantial presence in Parliament and an even more substantial presence in Egyptian civic society, with leadership roles in local committees and professional unions. In these elections, Muslim Brotherhood candidates were favoured for their organisational prowess and their transparent management of syndicate finances.
But the Muslim Brotherhood occupied an uneasy space in Mubarak’s regime, especially after it won a fifth of the country’s parliamentary seats in 2005. Election fraud left the group with just 20 percent of seats and denied Morsi another term in Parliament. When Morsi spoke out, participating in a demonstration that supported judges who wanted more independence, he was sentenced to jail for seven months.
Born in a conservative town on the Nile Delta, Morsi sketches an interesting political figure. He earned a PhD from a US university in California, headed the engineering department at one of Egypt’s biggest universities, and his profile on the Brotherhood website boasts a consulting stint with the NASA space programme (perplexingly, Morsi later denied ever having worked there in a local TV interview).
Morsi has also taken strong stances on social practices he views as blasphemous.
In 2011, he led a boycott of a major Egyptian mobile phone company because its owner had tweeted cartoon depictions of Minnie Mouse in a face veil.
Four years earlier, he had been tasked with helping author a position paper for the Guidance Council, the Brotherhood’s ruling group. The final mandates included a ban on women and Coptic Christians from serving as president, as well as the formation of a council of Islamic scholars to advise Parliament on the law. Their role would be extra-constitutional, but non-binding.
By 2012, a newly-elected Morsi had refined his stance.
“I will not prevent a woman from being nominated as a candidate for the presidency,” he told a New York Times reporter. “This is not in the Constitution. This is not in the law. But if you want to ask me if I will vote for her or not, that is something else, that is different.”
The Muslim Brotherhood has always claimed to infuse society with a core Islamic ethic, adopting derisive stances on everything from Israel to beauty contests. Yet along Egypt’s ideological expanse, they often inch towards the middle, flanked on the right by the more conservative Salafis.
Far from an ideological megaphone, the Brotherhood does not have a mission so much as an internal conversation – spun across generations – about the Islamic ethic and what kind of reach it should have in society. As power in Egypt’s political arena shifted, so have the Brotherhood’s ideological priorities.
“The  revolution was a massive wake-up call,” said al-Arian. “The Brotherhood all of a sudden had to take much more concrete positions on things. The more concrete their positions became, the far more likely it was that they weren’t going to impose these ideological stances.”
al-Arian highlighted the Brotherhood’s approach to foreign policy. Staunchly opposed to Zionist policies, the Brotherhood had still maintained the Gaza blockade, despite easing border restrictions.
“This is not an organisation that at any point wanted to impose the [headscarf] or draconian penalties,” added al-Arian. “The idea that they were going into government for a social revolution is unfounded.”
The Brotherhood was navigating tricky political space when Morsi became the country’s first democratically elected president in 2012. His successful campaign contradicted earlier claims by the Brotherhood that they would not run a presidential candidate.
When Morsi came to office, it was in the aftermath of a revolution, among a highly polarised population that gave him 51.7 percent of the vote.
According to Wael Haddara, one of Morsi’s campaign advisers, the president appealed to a public desire for a more accessible, everyday man as leader.
“The counternarrative that Morsi wasn’t a popular person, that Egypt needed a more charismatic figure, was not true … For the first four months, Morsi’s popularity [ranking] was in the stratosphere,” Haddara told Al Jazeera.
“He presented to people an accessible figure. A vast majority of Egyptians eking out a living, struggling to make ends meet, looked at Morsi as one of their own,” he added.
When Morsi swore an informal oath in Tahrir Square, he opened his jacket before supporters to show he wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest. Upon taking office, one of his first decisions was to order the release of 572 prisoners that had been detained after the revolution by the army.
Morsi himself had been jailed during the 2011 uprising, before escaping in a mass prison break among other Brotherhood leaders and members of Hamas and Hezbollah.
One of Morsi's mistakes during his presidency was that he led people to assume that he'd taken the reigns of the state when in fact he hadn't. He was simply put in a position to give people the idea that a real revolution had occurred. The state, meanwhile, was very much in the hands of the same people as it was under Mubarak
Despite any perception of Morsi as a man of the people, however, Egypt’s new president faced stiff political opposition and the hard ridges of a divisive post-revolutionary society.
The president was officially sworn into office two weeks after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued an interim declaration, awarding itself all legislative powers and effectively stripping Morsi’s office of authority. The lower house of parliament, with its Brotherhood majority, had also been dissolved by Egypt’s Mubarak-era Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC).
“One of Morsi’s mistakes during his presidency was that he led people to assume that he’d taken the reigns of the state when in fact he hadn’t. He was simply put in a position to give people the idea that a real revolution had occurred. The state, meanwhile, was very much in the hands of the same people as it was under Mubarak,” said al-Arian.
As Morsi navigated the political potholes of office, opposition politicians pelted him with criticism for what they saw as dictatorial manoeuvres to wrangle back power. In August 2012, Morsi nullified the SCAF declaration and put forth one of his own, allotting himself the power to pass laws and select a new constitution-drafting committee.
Morsi promised to forgo these expansive powers after the election of a new parliament, yet some still saw his decision as a political overstep.
The move was coupled with the forced retirement of Mubarak-era senior generals, political strongholds who had been entrenched in Egypt’s elite circles for decades.
“Morsi often talked about the idea that an individual may have an opportunity for change that will come along three times or even four times. You can blow your opportunity and another will come,” said Haddara. “Nations aren’t like that. You may have an opportunity once every generation, and January 25 represented that.”
Though Morsi was mindful of the sacrifices made during the January 2011 uprising before him, his efforts to push the country ahead were often stalled or criticised.
In November 2012, after garnering international goodwill for helping broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, Morsi issued a decree that further broadened his executive powers and granted protection to the committee drafting a new constitution. The move was widely seen as a way to shield the committee from challenges by Mubarak-era judges.
“If we did not actually have a constitution, then we would be back to square zero,” said Haddara of the manoeuvre. “Much in the same way that the parliament was dissolved by an organ of the ancien regime, the fear here was that this would mean harking back to greater instability for the country.”
Yet, some outraged critics saw the move as unacceptable. By the time he revoked his decision 10 days later, Brotherhood supporters and leftists had already clashed outside the presidential palace in deadly street fights.
“When it comes to politics, it’s all about how you package your decisions as a leader. Morsi could have done a better job at presenting what he was doing. He was indeed trying to fulfil the demands of the revolutionaries, but because he had engendered so much ill-will – especially after a shameless media campaign that constructed an exaggerated image of him – when he finally did something, everyone was outraged,” said al-Arian.
Riddled with walk-outs by liberal, leftist and Mubarak-era politicians, the constitutional drafting process had been portrayed by some critics as an exclusionary endeavour, void of the potential for dialogue. Yet in a televised address after November’s legal changes, one of Morsi’s advisers, Gehad al-Haddad, claimed that the “door is still open”.
Though the president had frequently been criticised for refusing to step outside his trust circle, supporters point to his efforts to be inclusive. In December 2012, Morsi’s appointments to the upper house of parliament had been 75 percent non-Islamist affiliated.
And according to Haddara, throughout Morsi’s time in office, his popularity never dipped below 60 to 55 percent.
Yet Morsi’s presidency was complicated by the heavy economic frustration weighing on Egypt’s population. The currency’s value was faltering, and unemployment had ballooned to 13 percent – all the while, Morsi was failing to secure a loan with the IMF.
Haddara notes that, when Morsi came to office, foreign currency reserves had been sapped by SCAF. Even so, gross domestic product grew from 1.8 percent to 2.2 percent (against market prices) between 2011 and 2012, and Haddara claims that tourism registered a return to pre-2011 levels.
A mediascape saturated with bias, in which local TV stations were quick to criticise Morsi’s policies, labelled Brotherhood supporters as ‘terrorists‘ and cheered on air after the president was arrested, did not help the executive office’s image.
“There were real issues that cannot be minimised …On the other hand, the media exaggerated some of the challenges that were being depicted,” said Haddara, noting the “magical disappearance” of certain social and economic grievances once Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power.
Others complain that Morsi’s efforts had bumped against the bureaucracies and entanglements erected by a deep state. Morsi’s minister of supply says Egypt’s deep state was actively working against him, noting that gas stations raised their prices and did not implement a smart card system designed by Morsi that would have tracked fuel shipments.
“I don’t think that the Brotherhood ever maintained political power; instead, there was an illusion of power that they played along with,” said al-Arian.
Lambasted for doing too much in the political arena, but too little for gas prices and food security, Morsi attempted to pacify the population in one of his last speeches in June 2013.
“I have made mistakes,” he admitted, but the crowds gathered at Tahrir Square by then did not care for his conciliatory tone.
By this point, protests both in favour of and against Morsi’s removal were rolling across the country. Days later, Morsi was issued an ultimatum by the military to either step down or face a military coup. He was overthrown on July 3, 2013, and placed under house arrest, where he was held incommunicado.
One short, roiling year after his election, Morsi’s time in office was cut short by a military takeover. Today, he sits in a jail cell, facing a death sentence and charges that range from leaking intelligence information to collaborating with foreign forces to free Islamists from jail in 2011.