SHEER ordinariness as a political cachet is not a novel device. Grizzly-bearded, baggy-suited and humble in manner, Muhammad Morsi, Egypt’s new head of state, fits the bill. His career typifies Egypt’s 80-year-old Muslim Brotherhood, many of whose leaders have been similarly upwardly-mobile professionals of modest provincial origin.
Born in 1951 in a rambling brick house where geese and ducks roamed freely in the dusty Nile Delta village of Edwa, north of Cairo, Mr Morsi was the eldest of five brothers. His father, he recalls, took him to school on the back of a donkey. The effort paid off grandly. The boy earned high enough marks to win a place at the respected engineering faculty of Cairo University, a hotbed of Islamism in the 1970s, and then a scholarship to the University of Southern California.
Mr Morsi claims to have disliked life in America, but two of his sons were born there and he lingered for several years after earning a doctorate before heading home to teach at the University of Zagazig, up the road from Edwa. In the mid-1980s the Brotherhood enjoyed a window of freedom as Egypt’s then relatively new president, Hosni Mubarak, experimented briefly with political pluralism. Mr Morsi joined the secret society, gaining a reputation as a diligent and competent organiser.
Such talents proved useful through subsequent waves of persecution. By 2000, when the Brotherhood was again allowed to contest highly circumscribed elections, he led its parliamentary ticket in Zagazig. Among the small group of Brotherhood MPs he was a quiet and loyal enforcer, and was briefly jailed along with other prominent members. When a hardline faction purged relative liberals from the Brotherhood’s command in 2009, he won a place in its inner council, and two years later took charge of a new political front, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), set up to give the Brothers a more pluralist veneer for contesting post-revolutionary elections.
Mr Morsi’s cool and calculated style has alienated some younger Brothers, but the FJP’s strong electoral performance made him a natural substitute when, in April, the Brotherhood’s firstchoice as a presidential candidate was blocked. But his victory in the run-off owed less to his gruff, uninspiring electioneering than to the votes of millions of Egyptians determined to stop his rival, a throwback to the Mubarak regime.