President Mohammed Mursi’s life has been under the microscope since his rise to power as the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate following the 2011 Egyptian revolution which ended the 30-year-rule of the Mubarak Regime.
Nearly ten months into the job, Egypt’s first democratically-elected president has faced a turbulent start; with many of those who had looked-up to him as a role model at first, finding themselves having to reconsider.
However, very few people know much about Mursi’s past. For example, it may come as a surprise to many that the struggling politician is said to have actually helped NASA develop space-shuttle engines in the 1980s.
Indeed, before venturing into a career in politics, Mursi – an expert on precision metal surfaces - was once a university professor who had taught in the Unites States.
As this story reveals, Mursi may have very well helped NASA build engines, however, his teaching skills left many students “destroyed,” mostly due to his less than stellar command of English.
Speaking exclusively to Al Arabiya, a number of his former students and colleagues revealed candid details, painting an intimate picture of the man we now know as Egypt’s president.
Born on August 8, 1951, the 62-year-old Mursi, referred to by his U.S. students as Professor Mohamed al-Ayat, was an Assistant Professor at the Department of Civil Engineering and Construction Management at California State University, Northridge (CSUN).
After obtaining BA and MA degrees in engineering from Cairo University, Mursi (whose full name is Mohamed Mohamed Mursi Issa al-Ayat) was awarded a scholarship by the toppled Egyptian Government. This enabled him to pursue his Ph.D. in Materials Science at the University of California (USC).
It wasn’t long before Mursi, or Professor al-Ayat, arrived at CSUN.
Familiar to most of the Hollywood-watching public as the backdrop in ‘Star Trek: the movie’ and ‘Legally Blonde,’ CSUN had no idea that it was offering a tutoring opportunity to the man who was destined to become the next President of Egypt.
According to his former colleague and current CSUN Professor, Nagi el-Naga, Mursi was a well-respected 30-year-old assistant professor who expressed no interest in politics.
“He came to CSUN as a lecturer and then became an assistant professor… He was very involved in his academic position as a professor,” el-Naga told Al Arabiya.
As far as religion is concerned, el-Naga said that he considered his former colleague to be very “conservative” and “strict” with regards to Islamic rituals.
El-Naga said that Mursi separated men from women during “social activities,” and his wife, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, did not shake hands with the opposite gender.
“There is a difference between being conservative and being an extremist,” said el-Naga.
Despite Mursi’s conservatism, el-Naga still viewed his former colleague as an “open-minded” man during his tenure as a professor.
“His English destroyed many students”
However, former students of Mursi had a different view.
“My grandfather told me that he dreaded attending his [Mursi’s] lectures,” said Jade Wallace, who is currently in his freshman year at CSUN and a grandson of a former student enrolled in Mursi’s class during the Fall Semester of 1984.
“My grandfather said that his professor (Mursi) seemed to have good teaching skills, however his English destroyed many students,”
said Wallace, referring to complaints, made by his grandfather, that many students had to retake Mursi’s class due to his alleged inability to adequately communicate the lecture.
Mursi would vent his frustration by writing out answers on the chalk board, said Wallace, the chalk squeaking against the blackboard in his bid to overcome the language barrier.
Mursi’s English communication skills have been internationally mocked. In January, Mursi visited Germany and spoke in a press conference about the future of Egypt and the separation of church and the state. During his speech, which was translated to the audience by interpreters, Mursi integrated a few English words into a statement in Arabic. “Gas and alcohol don’t mix,” he said, describing how freedom comes with responsibility, and even in the Western world people are not allowed to drink and drive.
The audience was left giggling, and his analogy “gas and alcohol don’t mix” became a symbol of his lack of English linguistic skills.
Prominent Egyptian satiric comedian Bassem Youssef, who has lately been targeted by Egyptian authorities for mocking Mursi’s presidential performance, received a high number of viewers when he made fun of Mursi’s speech in Germany.
“English and Arabic don’t mix,” said Youssef on his show, leaving his audience entertained.
According to Wallace’s grandfather, only seven out of 32 students passed the Civil Engineering course during his year of attendance.
For her part, CSUN’s News and Information Director, Carmen Chandler, told Al Arabiya she could not make comments regarding Mursi’s performance as a professor.
The current Egyptian president taught at the university 30 years ago and for “only a couple of years” making it difficult to trace records of him as “very few people here remember him,” she claimed.
Record keeping was impaired by a major earthquake which struck Northridge in 1994. CSUN suffered $400 million in damages which affected a significant number of the university’s records. This makes it difficult, according to Chandler, to verify the number of students who attended Mursi’s classes during his three year tenure.
The return to Egypt
The civil engineer, with two U.S. born children and a veiled wife, quit his job at CSUN in 1985 and moved back to Egypt to become the head of the engineering department at Zagazig University where he lectured until 2010.
Emad el-Wakil, Mursi’s former student at Zagazig University between 1998-1999, said that he appreciated the “fatherhood role” Mursi played with his students.
El-Wakil said that Mursi often talked about the experience of studying for his Ph.D. and his three years of teaching at CSUN. El-Wakil added that Mursi always “encouraged” his university students to further their education and study abroad.
“If you want to build Egypt, you should go to the U.S. and come back to build it,” he was quoted as saying.
In both universities, Mursi was perceived to be a tough professor, however in Egypt he seemed to be appreciated more, according to former students.
CSUN assistant professor el-Wakil, who followed in Mursi’s footsteps and currently teaches in the same department at the university, told Al Arabiya that his professor always maintained that the Mubarak regime would fall soon, predicting the reality that came about in 2011.
“At the end of each lecture he told the students that this regime is going to leave.”
Mursi’s former colleagues expressed delight at his subsequent winning of the Egyptian presidential elections following Mubarak’s ousting.
An unprecedented president
On 24 June 2012, the Egyptian election committee announced that Mursi won the presidential race and as such became the nation’s first democratically-elected president.
Nagi el-Naga remembers how overjoyed he was as he watched Mursi’s first speech. “I felt he was the same person I was with 30 years ago,” el-Naga said in an interview with NBC.
However, el-Naga told Al-Arabiya that “he became disappointed” while watching Mursi enacting his role as president.
Over the past ten months, observers argued that Mursi has demonstrated clearly that his aim is to consolidate power and further strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood.
Furthermore, he appeared to have contradicted himself on numerous occasions.
For example, during his stay in the United States, Mursi did not publicly share his thoughts on Israel. However, upon joining the
Muslim Brotherhood after his return to Egypt, he became renowned for an infamous, widely-circulated, YouTube video in which he insults Jews.
In the speech, Mursi referred to Jews as Zionists and said that the people of Israel are “descendants of apes and pigs.”
When asked by Al Arabiya whether Mursi had previously made similar statements during his years in academia, both el-Naga and el-Wakil said they do not recall the Egyptian leader ever mentioning the controversial Jewish state.
Contradicting his own anti-Semitic comments, Mursi – upon becoming president - wrote a letter to his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, calling him a “good friend.” The authenticity of the letter was later confirmed by Mursi’s spokesman, Yassir Ali, who said the letter was “100 percent correct.”
In his final remark regarding Mursi’s presidency el-Naga said, “Egypt is now worse than it was a year ago, and is worse than two years ago. It’s even worse than when President Mubarak was there.”
*Katherine Jane O’Neil is a reporter with Al Arabiya English and a CSUN graduate. Additional reporting by Amal Aziz and Hansook Oh in the United States.