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Egypt's Morsi circles wagons as trouble looms

Egypt President Mohamed Morsi 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.

world Updated: Jul 01, 2013 16:59 IST

Egypt President Mohamed Morsi 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 Morsi's opponents mobilise 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 Morsi from what they see as an attempted coup.

That he should battle on regardless, fending off a storm of criticism which he says is personally hurtful, reflects Morsi'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.

As hopes for consensus have faded, Morsi 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, Morsi 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, Morsi, 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, Morsi sought to appeal to ordinary people with a folksy style that departed from stiffer habits that were often mocked.

"He knows his primary audience is not opposition supporters or secular-minded urbanites," said Yasser El-Shimy, Egypt analyst with the International Crisis Group.

When he 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.

Failing to reach out
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 US 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 Morsi 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. Morsi then put the controversial text to referendum, ignoring protests from non-Islamists who said it did not reflect Egypt's diversity.

The opposition condemned Morsi'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.

Morsi 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.

Talks with the International Monetary Fund on a $4.8 billion loan vital to restoring investor confidence stumbled as Morsi balked at politically-sensitive terms such as tax increases.

Even the Brotherhood spoke out publicly against Morsi's prime minister, the independent technocrat Hisham Kandil.

The government's commitment to democracy was thrown into question by laws criticised for restricting civil society and the right to protest. The United States and Europe - major donors - both expressed concern.

Critics have depicted Morsi 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.

"Dr Mohamed Morsi unfortunately does not have transparency, clarity in dealing with the Egyptian people," said Mohamed Habib, a former deputy leader of the Brotherhood who quit the group in 2011.

As his circle of friends tightens to groups such al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, a once-armed jihadist movement, Morsi will likely find it even harder to convince critics that he can be a president for all Egyptians and not just a party man.

"The relationship with the Egyptian people was the main shortcoming this year: the transformation from being a movement to a national political force," said a Western diplomat.

"The main mistake was the inability to speak to the nation and to engage the Egyptians into this new democratic project."

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