Meet the Islamist Political Fixer Who Could Be Egypt’s Next President

Egyptian law bans criminal convicts from running for president, and though al-Shater’s 2007 conviction for belonging to an “illegal organization”—namely, the Brotherhood— was highly politicized, the Brotherhood knew that it could sink al-Shater’s candidacy nonetheless. It thus nominated a last-minute backup: former parliamentarian Mohamed Morsi, who has now replaced al-Shater as the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate.

Morsi’s sudden emergence as the Muslim Brotherhood’s standard-bearer represents a tremendous change in his role within the organization. For much of the past decade, Morsi has been a behind-the-scenes player, performing two key functions that were vital to the Brotherhood’s external security and internal discipline.

First, for the final four years of Hosni Mubarak’s reign, Morsi was the primary point-of-contact for State Security within the Muslim Brotherhood. State Security was the repressive domestic security apparatus through which the Mubarak regime monitored and infiltrated opposition groups, and Morsi negotiated with State Security to ensure the Brotherhood’s participation in various political endeavors, such as parliamentary elections. “Mohamed Morsi has very good security relations,” former deputy supreme guide Mohamed Habib told me during a March 2011 interview. “State Security likes a connection point who has the confidence of various Brothers, and [top Brotherhood leaders] pushed for him.” Indeed, Brotherhood leaders trusted Morsi because they viewed him as ideologically rigid, and therefore unlikely to concede too much to the regime during negotiations. Brotherhood leaders also believed that Morsi’s longtime political experience, including his membership in the Brotherhood’s political division since 1992 and leadership of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc from 2000 to 2005, made him an effective negotiator.

Interestingly, Morsi inherited this role from Khairat al-Shater, the man whom he recently replaced as the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate. Prior to the 2005 parliamentary elections, Morsi assisted al-Shater in negotiating with the regime over the number of candidates that the Brotherhood would run. When the Brotherhood won 88 of 454 total seats in parliament—including a majority of the seats that they contested—the regime was infuriated, and it is believed that its subsequent prosecution of al-Shater was, in part, a punishment for his failure to reduce sufficiently the number of Brotherhood candidacies. Following al-Shater’s conviction, Morsi became the Brotherhood’s sole liaison to State Security.

Morsi’s willingness, in the years afterwards, to negotiate with a Mubarak regime that brutally repressed the Brotherhood for decades is a testament to the organization’s political gradualism during that time. “Our program is a long-term one, not a short-term one,” Morsi told me during an August 2010 interview. “If we are rushing things, then I don’t think that this leads to a real stable position.” Indeed, under Mubarak, the organization’s primary aim was survival—which is why it frequently coordinated its activities with the regime, and typically refused to join the various protest movements that emerged during the waning years of Mubarak’s rule. “We never participate in some randomness movements before,” Morsi told me in his stilted English. The Brotherhood thus initially refused to participate in the January 2011 mass demonstrations that ultimately toppled Mubarak. And despite having been arrested as the revolt reached its climax, Morsi participated in early February negotiations with then-vice-president Omar Suleiman that, unsuccessfully, aimed to end the protests.

Morsi’s second function within the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership was similarly critical to the Brotherhood’s integrity.

He was, in the words of former Brotherhood youth Abdel Monem al-Mahmoud, “an icon of the extremists in the Muslim Brotherhood”—someone who not only pushed the Brotherhood to adopt a more extreme agenda, but advocated for purging those leaders who disagreed with it.

Eric Trager is the Ira Weiner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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