Published July 02, 2012
CAIRO – Standing before tens of thousands of adoring supporters in Tahrir Square, President Mohammed Morsi opened his jacket in a show of bravado to prove he was not wearing a bullet-proof vest. The message was clear: He has nothing to fear because he sees himself as the legitimate representative of Egypt's uprising.
In the week since he was named president, Morsi has portrayed himself as a simple man, uninterested in the trappings of power and refusing to take up residence in the presidential palace
His speeches reveal a populist bent, filled with generous promises many are skeptical he can keep. And although he began as an awkward and uninspiring speaker, Morsi appears to be striving to reinvent his uncharismatic public persona.
After eking out a narrow victory in last month's runoff, Morsi has claimed the mantle of the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak last year.
But his Muslim Brotherhood did not join the uprising until it had gained irreversible momentum. And its critics say the Islamic fundamentalist group has hijacked the movement that was led by secular and liberal youths, and abandoned demonstrators during deadly clashes with security forces in the months that followed Mubarak's February 2011 ouster.
Morsi's moves are an attempt to make up for the way he came to power, narrowly defeating Mubarak's last prime minister in a runoff that had just a 51 percent turnout, said Karima Kamal, a minority Christian activist and writer.
"He knows that he did not come to power because voters liked him. But the general impression in the street now is that he is a kind and simple man who came from a simple family. This is reassuring to many people," she said.
A U.S.-trained engineer who lectured at a Nile Delta university, Morsi, 61, has none of the grandeur or name recognition of his predecessors.
Mubarak was a decorated war hero who was in office long enough to become a global household name. Anwar Sadat was the darling of the West, disengaging Egypt from decades of dependence on the Soviet Union and making peace with Israel. Gamal Abdel-Nasser was an Arab nationalist and an anti-colonialist hero who commanded respect and admiration across the Arab world.
Morsi, by contrast, was only months ago a little-known Islamist politician with no oratorical skills, no history of military prowess and no international standing. Still, he may represent a change in style and substance that Egyptians are ready for after millions took to the streets in last year's stunning uprising.
Columnist Salama Ahmed Salama said Morsi has made progress in the relatively short time he has been in the limelight.
"What we see now is a much more daring, open and talkative personality than the conservative and introverted Morsi we knew before," he said. "He is doing his best to fill the seat, but it is hard for him."
On Sunday, his first full day as president, Morsi decreed a 15 percent salary bonus to state employees and substantially raised the state stipend for the poorest in what many saw as a return to Mubarak's tactic of trying to appease the population of 85 million, nearly half of whom live in poverty.
During his speech Friday in Tahrir Square, Morsi roused the crowd with his loud words and constant finger-wagging. When he opened his jacket in a dramatic gesture — "I fear no one but God," he declared — he was surrounded by 12 burly security officers.
Still, some maintain this is the authentic Morsi.
"When he lifted his jacket and moved closer to the people, to speak to them directly, I felt he was trying to claim leadership ... for himself as Mohammed Morsi, not the Muslim Brotherhood man," columnist Emadeddin Hussein wrote in the independent el-Shorouk daily.
"The man we saw was the real Mohammed Morsi, not the spare tire," he said, referring to the unflattering moniker thrust on Morsi as a reminder that the Muslim Brotherhood only fielded him after its first-choice candidate was thrown out of the race over a Mubarak-era conviction.
The generals who took over from Mubarak last year stripped the presidency of many of its major powers in the two weeks before Saturday's handover to Morsi. They dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament and gave themselves legislative power, as well as significant influence over domestic and foreign policy and the drafting of a new constitution.
Much of what Morsi has done over the past week was aimed at allaying the concerns of liberals, women and minority Christians that he will inject more religion into government or even turn Egypt into an Islamic state. In the meantime, he has sought to project an image of himself as humble, fair and pious, qualities that have struck a chord with Egyptians long accustomed to the pomp and personality cult of his predecessors.
During his first week in office, Morsi has led prayers at the presidential palace and refused to have his portrait hung in schools and government offices, long a custom in Egypt. He shed tears during a moving sermon last Friday and has declined to move into the presidential palace, living instead in his own apartment in a suburb east of Cairo, where he rises daily at dawn to pray at a nearby mosque.
Morsi's 50-year-old wife, Naglaa Ali, is also evidence of a new era: She wears a long flowing veil, known as a "khemar," and didn't attend college. She refuses to be called first lady, saying: "I want to be called the president's wife."
Morsi's motorcade is significantly smaller than Mubarak's and he permits traffic to be halted only briefly when on the move, something that has gone down well with Cairo's 18 million residents, who were stuck in traffic for hours every time Mubarak took to the road. He began his inauguration speech at Cairo University with an apology to students whose final exams had to be postponed to allow the ceremony to take place.
A Muslim preacher known to be close to the Brotherhood, Safwat Hegazy, was caught on camera kissing Morsi's hands when he arrived at Tahrir on Friday, showing the sort of reverence reserved for holy men or senior clerics, but which is also frowned upon by theological purists.
"Kissing the hands of the president just creates another pharaoh," wrote Wael Ghonem, an iconic figure of the uprising.
Significantly, Morsi has made no mention in any of his five speeches so far of implementing Islamic Shariah law, with only his frequent citation of Quranic verses betraying his political orientation as an Islamist.
Instead, he seems to have found a new way of delivering the message of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose main goal is to Islamize Egypt.
He has sought to emulate the governance style of the Prophet Mohammad's immediate successors in the seventh century. Under their tutelage, according to scholars, Islam witnessed its golden age as a faith that provides both spiritual guidance as well as a way of life.