President Mohamed Mursi came to office promising to be a president for all Egyptians.
A year into his term, the divisions deepened by his rule have pitched the nation into crisis.
As Mursi’s opponents mobilize for protests aimed at toppling him, the Muslim Brotherhood man shows no sign of flinching. Instead, he is digging in, backed by Islamist allies determined to shield Mursi from what they see as an attempted coup.
That he should battle on regardless, fending off a storm of criticism which he said is personally hurtful, reflects Mursi’s approach during a year in which his efforts have been obstructed by political unrest, resistance from vested interests within the state and failures by a government that seems to lack vision.
“Of course, the first president to come following the revolution will struggle, this is normal -- the load is heavy and no one is objecting to this,” Ahmed Maher, Head of April 6 Youth Movement and activist told Reuters TV.
“We have not seen any ideas for creating jobs or ideas to resolve the security gap, so we to tried to help. We presented proposals when we sat down with President Mursi -- the last time we sat down with him was on November 4, 2012 and we even handed him written proposals. We submitted a proposal to deal with traffic issues. I am an engineer so there are ideas in terms of traffic engineering and there are specialists at universities and even engineers living outside Egypt who are contributing through research and ideas to organize traffic, but nothing came of it.”
As hopes for consensus have faded, Mursi has ploughed on regardless, casting his opponents as spoilers who have rejected his attempts at outreach. His allies, meanwhile, have been whittled down to Islamists at the extreme religious right.
Addressing his supporters on Wednesday, Mursi said the conflict threatened “our nascent democratic experience and threatens to put the whole nation in a state of paralysis and chaos”. In a pattern seen before, he offered concessions, but these were dismissed as too little by the opposition.
“I say to the opposition: the road to change is clear,” he said, alluding to elections won by the Islamists to date.
A determined man of action to his supporters and a would-be despot to his opponents, Mursi, 61, is a civil engineer and university lecturer with a doctorate from the United States. He was raised in a rural village a two-hour drive north of Cairo.
He was thrust into the presidential race when the Brotherhood’s first-choice candidate was disqualified. Dismissed at first as the “spare tyre”, he has grown into his role, appearing ever more confident in his public addresses.
Leaning over the podium and digressing from his written remarks during a nearly three-hour speech late on Wednesday, Mursi sought to appeal to ordinary people with a folksy style that departed from stiffer habits that were often mocked.
When Mursi took office, the extent of his authority was thrown into doubt by the role of Hosni Mubarak-era generals who had established themselves as a rival source of authority.
Yet the novice president stunned observers in August when he sacked Mubarak’s veteran defence minister, a move that drew grudging respect from some critics, even in the liberal camp.
In his first weeks in office, visits to China and Iran set a new tone for Egypt’s foreign policy. He also preserved Egypt’s role as a vital Middle East actor by helping broker an end to a short war between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.
The ceasefire declared from Cairo in the presence of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reassured the West that Islamist rule did not mean a dramatic shift in a regional order underpinned by Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
But no sooner had Mursi helped settle one international conflict than he set off another at home by issuing a decree that infuriated opponents and triggered days of lethal violence.
The decree allowed the Islamists to complete a constitution free of the risk of legal challenges. Mursi then put the controversial text to referendum, ignoring protests from non-Islamists who said it did not reflect Egypt’s diversity.
Maher says Mursi’s push to get the constitutional declaration approved marked the beginning of a division in society.
“The defining moment that made us realize there was no hope was the constitutional declaration. This marked the beginning of the division in society and then followed the string of violence and people started to feel they (the government) were truly tyrannical and have no intention to leave power,” said Maher.
“So all the fears and doubts people had, which we brushed off and said, maybe it will happen and such, we realized it was in fact a reality. So the constitutional declaration and the insistence on making the constitution pass at any price, which they openly confronted us with, was the main mistake. Since last December up until today there has been no stability at all and even a path for resolving the division is no longer there,” he added.
The opposition condemned Mursi’s constitutional decree as a power grab with echoes of the Mubarak era. The Brotherhood billed it as a pre-emptive move against a plot by old regime loyalists to obstruct the political transition.
Mursi and the Brotherhood won, but not without cost. The episode deepened the political divide, burying hopes for the consensus needed to embark on reforms to tackle an economic crisis that has sent the currency to record lows.
Strong Egypt Party founder and former presidential candidate, Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh, told Reuters he hoped Mursi would prove an effective leader, but soon lost hope.
”I am among the people who were betting that Dr. Mursi, after he goes from managing a group or an organization that was being segregated against and chased by the authorities (Muslim Brotherhood), that he was going to change the way he performs and the way he manages things, but I have not seen any change in his managerial process,” said Abul Futuh.
“It’s like he’s running Egypt the country in the same way he would run a group, or organization that is segregated against and being chased by the police. The driving force in such organizations (like the Muslim Brotherhood) is to turn to those you trust, because the police are after you, so you confide in the ones you trust, but running a country is different. You cannot run a country in this manner and this system does not work,” he added.
Talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a 4.8 billion USD loan vital to restoring investor confidence stumbled as Mursi balked at politically-sensitive terms such as tax increases.
Even the Brotherhood spoke out publicly against Mursi’s prime minister, the independent technocrat Hisham Kandil.
The government’s commitment to democracy was thrown into question by laws criticized for restricting civil society and the right to protest. The United States and Europe - major donors - both expressed concern.
Critics have depicted Mursi as a puppet of the Islamist movement that launched him to power - a claim rejected by the presidency and the Brotherhood. But ex-members of the presidential staff have cited the group’s interference as their reason for quitting.
Strong Egypt Party’s Abul Futuh says Mursi must call an early referendum on early presidential elections.
”I feel that Dr. Mursi has no choice at this moment except to have a degree of knowledge and understanding and to be able to safe keep the country and himself -- by himself I mean his faction (Muslim Brotherhood), by proposing a referendum on early presidential elections to the people and whatever the public decides, we will respect it, my party will respect it. The alternative to this is that we will continue in our peaceful, constitutional, legal strife to confront the regime so that it either reforms its performance and returns to its promises or it exits the government through democratic means, so through elections or a referendum,” said Abul Futuh, once a senior figure in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
As his circle of friends tightens to groups such al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, a once-armed jihadist movement, Mursi will likely find it even harder to convince critics that he can be a president for all Egyptians and not just a party man.