Nahlah Ayed: Egypt's Mohammed Morsi, friend or foe?

Egypt's Mohammed Morsi makes his international debut at the UN today fully aware that many observers — and not just Westerners — are wary of the new face leading one of the Arab world's most influential nations.

The new Egyptian president makes his international debut at the UN today

Egypt's Mohammed Morsi makes his international debut at the UN today fully aware that many in the chamber — and not just Westerners — are wary of the new face at the helm of one of the Arab world's most influential nations.

Morsi is certainly no Hosni Mubarak, his pro-West strongman predecessor whose regime was overthrown on the streets of Cairo last year. A scientist, a believer, and a former political prisoner, Morsi cuts a drastically different figure in the corridors of world power.

But in his short, not quite three months in office, Morsi has so far managed to confound watchers. Despite his Islamist credentials, rooted in the once outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, he maintains that under him the country will be pluralistic and inclusive. Others aren't so sure.

Meanwhile, his slow reaction in condemning the violent protests at U.S. embassies in Cairo and Libya recently, over the video that mocked the Prophet Muhammad, caused even Barack Obama to publicly wonder about Morsi's Egypt. "I don't think that we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy," Obama said earlier this month.

And many other unanswered questions remain about the 61-year-old Morsi as well.

What can be expected of a man who lived in the U.S. for years, yet who spent most of his political life as a member of an Islamist group banned by his pro-West predecessors?

And how intent is he on distancing Egypt from a foreign policy that long tended to align itself with what Washington wanted?

Independent streak

With so little known about him, Morsi embarked on a bit of a public relations exercise leading up to his arrival in New York.

In a handful of interviews with American media, he tried to provide a glimpse into the kind of Egypt the world can expect under its first democratically elected, post-revolution president.

Egypt's Mohammad Morsi meets with Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping in Beijing in August 2012. He has been travelling the world, but hasn't dropped in on Barack Obama yet. (How Hwee Young / Associated Press)

He told the New York Times, for example, that his Egypt would be more independent of the U.S. than it was under Mubarak, and that it would chart its own path "according to the Egyptian people's choice and will, nothing else."

From the start he has demonstrated an independent streak.

After narrowly defeating his run-off opponent in June, he stunned watchers at home and abroad by swiftly replacing the old military guard, essentially neutralizing the much-despised Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which had ruled Egypt since Mubarak was forced to step down.

Surely there was a backstage price to be paid for this arrangement, though no one knows what it is.

Still, Morsi "made bold moves to assert his authority as the elected president, to appoint the senior military leadership, which SCAF had tried to take away from him," observed Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East expert at London's Chatham House.

Then he made his first foreign trip to Iran, to attend a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, a destination that raised eyebrows in the West — until he shocked his hosts by slamming Syria, Iran's staunch ally, as "oppressive," in the heart of Tehran.

It was a move that seemed designed to show Egypt still had regional influence, even as he was manoeuvering to stay the course.

"Morsi has made a lot of efforts to convince Western and international audiences that he will not radically change Egypt's foreign policy, even if he demonstrates autonomy," says Dr. Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.

"He's signaling not an adjustment in policy so much as a somewhat more sensitive balance between Egypt's and the Arab or Islamic, and Western interests."

Part of that balance is providing assurances that he respects the 1979 peace treaty Egypt signed with Israel, even as he points out the U.S. has yet to live up to its commitment under the deal to provide Palestinians with the self-rule they seek.

Promises to keep?

But what of the man behind such assertiveness? In his New York Times interview Morsi gave only small glimpses, reminiscing about his time in the U.S., while revealing he didn't like the idea of "naked" restaurants like Hooters.

Fascinating, but there is clearly much more to this  man.

Anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators denounce Morsi and his Islamist government in Cairo in August, in the first large anti-government rally since the election in June. (Amr Nabil / Associated Press)

Deeply conservative and religious, he ostensibly left the Muslim Brotherhood to take on the role of president. But he's still being accused of leading with its policies in mind.

And while he denies it, "his actions tell a different story," critic Said Shehata wrote in a recent piece for the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram.

Noting he did not keep his promise to choose a Christian vice-president, Shehata also claims that Morsi has appointed Brotherhood members or sympathizers in "all corners of the Egyptian government," and concludes that "Morsi and the Brotherhood remind me of the former regime."

Morsi, of course, would disagree with that assessment.

Unlike Mubarak, he is no military man and, more importantly, he knows what it is like to live under the thumb of a dictatorship. He was imprisoned more than once, and three of his sons were arrested or beaten during the revolution.

Therefore, the pro-Morsi reasoning goes, he isn't likely to try to recreate any kind of police state.

His supporters concede that he is a natural contrarian who is more accustomed to the backrooms than the front rows.

In fact, a promotional video produced by the Muslim Brotherhood proudly boasts about his track record as an opposition MP between 2000 and 2005, when he posed more than 250 questions, and apparently instigated more than "5000 interventions."

But will he welcome similar such opposition now that he's in power? Morsi has said repeatedly that he would and the criticism is well under way: A so-called Morsi Meter has been set up online to gauge his performance so far — and he's not doing well.

Of 64 initiatives he promised to complete by his 100th day in office, in areas such as congestion, security and the price of bread, only an embarrassing four have been completely fulfilled. The online commentary is scathing.

The embassy riots

Morsi wasn't exactly a consensus candidate. He won with only 51.7 percent of the vote and he has the unenviable task of trying to please everyone — from secular liberals to hard-line ultra-religious Salafists, while staying in power and improving the odds of a Muslim Brotherhood majority in the next election.

Any moves on the international front will more than likely be reined in by that reality, which means his fortunes at home will ultimately determine how he operates abroad.

That is why, his supporters claim, he had no choice but to be measured in his reaction to the attacks on the U.S. embassies a couple of weeks ago.

Morsi's first statement — duly reported at home — was to focus on the amateurish video that had prompted the protests (while making a general statement about protecting foreigners and insisting on the rule of law).

It wasn't until two days later that he unambiguously condemned the attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Notably, that condemnation came after meetings at the European Commission in Brussels.

It appears that, like many other Arab leaders — and like Mubarak before him — Morsi was tailoring his message, depending on who was listening.

Just one tiny insight into a man largely unknown to the wider world, and even to many of his own people. Maybe his speech at the UN will help shed some more light.