Egypt runoff: Who is Mohammed Morsi?

UPDATE 6/24/12: Follow the latest on the Egyptian runoff results here.

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It appears that Mohammed Morsi, 60, the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party — the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood — has placed first in the first round of Egypt’s May presidential election with around 27% of the vote. 

So, who is Morsi? What does his success mean for Egypt? And what are his chances in the runoff?

Morsi is the second choice of the Brotherhood, after the May 15 disqualification of Khairat al-Shater, a charismatic businessman and former deputy chairman of the Brotherhood, who made clear his support for economic liberalization and fairly liberal line on the role of Islam in public life.  Morsi is seen as being a bit more conservative than al-Shater and more conservative than his rival Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (who was formerly a member of the Brotherhood), but not nearly as much as disqualified Salafist preacher Hazem Abu Ismail.

The leader of the FJP in Egypt’s nascent parliament, Morsi spent almost eight years in the United States, when he was working on his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California and then teaching at California State University, Northridge until 1985.  Indeed, his California-born children are U.S. citizens.

Morsi’s strong finish clearly vindicates the Brotherhood’s decision to field a presidential candidate, a flip from their original position that they would not field a candidate.

His first-place finish also demonstrates, coupled with the FJP’s 37.5% share of the vote in January 2011 parliamentary elections (it won 235 seats in Egypt’s parliament, nearly half of the total 508 seats), that the Muslim Brotherhood remains the top political organization in Egypt in the post-Mubarak era, notwithstanding the frustration of the Egyptian electorate with the lack of progress that the Brotherhood-dominated parliament has made since those elections.

If he faces off against former Mubarak official Ahmed Shafiq, both candidates will appeal to rural voters — it will be urban voters who decide who wins the runoff.  It is likely that Islamists, including the powerful, Salafist, conservative Al-Nour Party will coalesce around Morsi, including the first-round supporters of Aboul Fotouh.

Although many of those urban voters are unlikely to support Shafiq, it remains to be seen whether Morsi can convince them to support him (rather than abstain in the runoff).

His first-round campaign emphasized the reform of corrupt institutions and applying more Islamic law. His challenge, however, will be to moderate his conservative Islamic position (for this, he should take some lessons from Aboul Fotouh) to reassure urban voters and liberals, as well as neo-Nasserist nationalists who supported Hamdeen Sabahi and even those supporters of former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa that he will be moderate enough to represent all Egyptians, not just Islamists.

He will also have to present a vision for Egypt more like that of Turkey — where an Islamist prime minister has prioritized economic concerns over sharia or other religious issues — than of Saudi Arabia or Iran, each with a much more severely religious legal code.

He will have to convince voters that a vote for Shafiq is a vote backward to the Mubarak era, that Morsi represents the blooming of the new Egyptian civil society, in contrast to the dark and autocratic ‘deep state’ in which Shafiq rose to prominence.

He will also have to convince skeptical voters that, notwithstanding his Islamism, he will be a safe bet for Egypt’s developing democracy and its economy — in short, that he will be strong-willed enough to make the presidency a true institution that can transcend the era of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and can attack the problems of Egypt’s economy (such as high unemployment), without being so strong-willed in his Islamism that he could cause a counterreaction from SCAF and the other elements embedded deep within Egypt’s political state that remain committed to secularism.

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