Understanding Mohamed Morsi: His journey from farm boy to most powerful man in the Middle East.
ON A SULTRY MORNING in late September, I drove for two hours on the traffic-choked roads north of Cairo to Al Adwa, a Nile Delta town of dusty alleyways, mosques, and crumbling red brick houses. This is where Mohamed Morsi, the president of Egypt, was raised. Morsi left nearly four decades ago, but he returns regularly to visit his younger brothers, who still work the family farm, and to celebrate Islamic holidays. In 2008, he ritually slaughtered a sheep here for the Eid Al Adha feast that ends the Ramadan fast.
I had traveled to Al Adwa hoping that Morsi’s hometown might shed some light on a man who has only become more enigmatic during his brief time in the spotlight. Since he became Egypt’s first democratically elected leader last June, Morsi has displayed both extraordinary political acumen and a tone-deafness that has plunged his country into deeper unrest. In November, he deftly helped negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, averting a bloody ground war in the Gaza Strip. Days later, he lost much of the goodwill he had earned by issuing an edict that awarded his office near-dictatorial powers.
Sometimes, Morsi can seem like the inspiring guardian of Egyptian democracy—such as when he courageously dismissed the military junta that had claimed the right to rule post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt. At other times, he can seem like a mouthpiece for the deeply conservative Muslim Brotherhood—declaring women unfit for high office and advocating for an international law to ban religious insults. (And sometimes he simply seems awkward, such as when he sat down for a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gilliard in September at the United Nations and proceeded, for several excruciating seconds, to publicly adjust his genitals.) So far, the only certainty about Morsi is that his ultimate intentions remain unknown.
Among Morsi’s many critics, the suspicion remains strong that he is an Islamist at heart—and that this identity, shaped in the small conservative town where I was standing, will ultimately define his presidency. On the second floor of his three-story red brick childhood home, he still keeps a small study. His cousin, a skinny man in his early twenties, showed me the room, with its bare cement floor and battered sofa. He pointed at a scuffed wooden table: “Whenever he comes home, he works at this desk.” Books and pamphlets that Morsi had left behind were stacked haphazardly: a treatise by Hassan Al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood; a biography of a disciple of the Prophet Mohammed; a manifesto that had been distributed by the Freedom and Justice Party, which the Muslim Brotherhood founded immediately after the revolution that deposed Mubarak. On top of the pile rested a slim volume: Teach Yourself French in Five Days.
I noticed a poster hanging on an otherwise bare wall. It showed the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem above the slogan, in Arabic, “We will return, oh Aqsa.” I asked his cousin how I should interpret these words. “A war will happen again between the Arabs and the Jews,” he told me matter-of-factly, “and we will regain Jerusalem.”