Mohamed Morsi was never supposed to run for president of Egypt. He was the Muslim Brotherhood’s backup candidate and only came into the limelight after the organization's first pick – Khairat El Shater, a strategist, financier, and heavyweight in the Brotherhood – was disqualified for legal reasons.
Some speculated that this would hurt Dr. Morsi’s chances – he is the frequent butt of jokes about spare tires. But he won the most votes in the first round of Egypt’s presidential elections, with about 25 percent of the total votes cast on May 23-24. Now, the erstwhile backup candidate may become Egypt’s next president. He faces former Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq in a runoff in mid-June.
Morsi, who comes from a traditional Brotherhood stronghold in the Nile Delta region, is an engineer by trade. He lived in California while earning a doctorate at the University of Southern California and teaching at California State University, Northridge. He has two children who were born in the US and are American citizens.
He rose through the ranks of the Brotherhood to become a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, the group’s executive body. In 2000, Morsi ran for parliament in the Sharqia governorate, and won. According to former Brotherhood member Mohamed Afan, Morsi was also a backup candidate in this race – stepping in when the original candidate was arrested.
Morsi became the leader of the Brotherhood’s parliament members, who numbered only 17 then. They officially ran as independents because their organization was banned under Mubarak. Morsi lost his seat in a fraudulent election in 2005. He resigned from the Guidance Bureau last year when he was chosen to head the organization’s newly formed Freedom and Justice Party.
Morsi is not considered a charismatic leader. At campaign rallies, he sometimes looks uncomfortable being the center of attention. But some voters say that's not important with an organization like the Brotherhood to back him. The organization itself emphasizes his platform, which focuses on economic development and security, more than his person.
Hana Khalaf, a resident of the mostly low-income Imbaba area who voted for Morsi, said she chose him because he is the Brotherhood’s candidate, and she thinks the organization has what it takes to improve life in Egypt.
“We will see if they can fix the country and make things better for us,” she said.
Morsi has a reputation for faithfully carrying out organizational policy and consistently toes the party line. “He does not challenge any organizational decision … he has not criticized the leadership,” says Ibrahim El Houdaiby, a former member of the Brotherhood. “He's not an independent leader.”
Some Egyptians worry that this mind-set means he would still answer to the Brotherhood’s leader even if he became president. But others appreciate the fact that he is not known for political maneuvering, and consider him honest.
During the first round of the vote, the Brotherhood also found another way to promote him: by casting him as the only truly Islamist candidate. That resonated with some. Asked why she voted for Morsi as she exited a polling station during the first round, Iman Azza had a simple answer: “Because he said he’s going to apply sharia,” or Islamic law.