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Mon Dec 22 04:45:13 CAT 2014

THE BIG READ: Morsi: LA incidental

Richard Spencer, Magdy Samaan and Philip Sherwell, ©The Sunday Telegraph | 02 July, 2012 00:40
Said Morsi, younger brother of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, at the family house in El edoueh village, northeast of Cairo Picture: ASMAA WAGUIH/REUTERS

For millions of youngsters around the world, it would have been a dream come true: a scholarship to California in the 1970s: the golden era for Good Vibrations. But for Mohamed Morsi - now President of Egypt - and his teenage bride it was an opportunity to prove their moral worth.

The pious young Morsi and his wife, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, were there to work hard, to resist temptation and to "give something back" to the profoundly Muslim world that had got them where they were.

He excelled in academia, gaining a PhD in rocket engineering, publishing papers in scientific journals and eventually winning a place teaching at a top US university. She chose her own route to integration with her host society, helping to translate religious texts at a hostel for American women wanting to convert to Islam.

Then, when they were ready, they returned home, back to the drab Nile Delta region where Morsi was raised, and began their worthy ascent to prominence.

But, even as Morsi capped those 35 years of hard slog by being sworn in as Egypt's first democratically elected, and first Muslim Brotherhood, president, this path of endeavour has divided the people over whom he must rule.

The Morsis were offered engagement with the outside world and conspicuously refused to take it - so how can they now represent Egypt on the international stage?

The divisions in Egyptian society are deep, and the margin of victory of 52% to 48% in the battle between the secular and military forces represented by Ahmed Shafiq and Morsi's brotherhood show how much must be done to unite a troubled society.

Morsi was a deliberately non-confrontational choice for the brotherhood - he became known as the "spare tyre" after he replaced the more charismatic and forceful Khairat al-Shater, a long-term former political prisoner, as its man.

But even his pious blandness raises hackles in an extrovert society and the more characterful Mahmoud - Egyptian women use their own name - is, in the eyes of many modern Egyptians, particularly liberal young women, even worse.

For them her whole persona, her lack of education, her khimar - the all-in-one headscarf and cloak beloved of working and lower-middle class housewives - and her avowed dislike of her new prominence, are an affront to a century of gains for Egyptian women in schooling, careers and social life.

But there is an equally powerful response of "But how can you say that - she looks just like my mother?" from those who want to defend the new first lady.

Not that Mahmoud allows herself to be called that: "Who said that the president's wife is the first lady, anyway?" she said last week.

For Morsi, 60, and Mahmoud, 50, it has been a long and surprising path to the presidential palace.

He was brought up on a small farm allotted to his father by the first Egyptian revolution in 1952, and she in a poor Cairo suburb.

Devout and particularly devoted to his mother, said his brothers from their hometown in the Delta this week, he was a model pupil, told his friends to study the Koran and work, and won a place at Cairo University.

Morsi's life changed when he won a place to study at the University of Southern California in inner-city Los Angeles from 1978 to 1982. Hers changed too. First cousins, they were formally betrothed before he left, even though she was only 16 - a classic way, many who have trodden the path say, for religious families to help their sons resist the temptations of US society.

They spent seven years in the US, with Morsi teaching for three years as an assistant professor at California State University, Northridge.

Mahmoud enjoyed life in California and would have been happy not to leave, she said recently, but her husband wanted their family to be raised in Egypt. It is typical of his life - he does not seem to have expressed any anti-American feelings at this stage but he was more comfortable at home, and he returned to a teaching position at Zagazig University in the Nile Delta in 1985.

He has been there ever since.

Mahmoud stayed at home, bringing up their children. It has been an anonymous life by choice, and that has left many asking for the real Morsi to please stand up.

"He is Mr Average," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent Egyptian writer and professor of politics, who met Morsi in detention in Torah Prison in southern Cairo - one of two occasions when Morsi's brotherhood membership was held against him by the old regime.

Morsi was a senior figure in the strictly hierarchical brotherhood but not a natural leader, Ibrahim said. "He struck me as decent, quiet, but not much of a leader."

Morsi is one of the brotherhood leaders who have been meeting Western diplomats since 2003. But he has remained ambiguous, punctuating his speeches with fierce criticisms of US "imperialism" and, in particular, of Israel.

Perhaps the answer does really lie in his wife. She has, in an expression she would never use, "kept her man real".

There was a touching moment when the farmer's son president took his slum-born wife to the presidential palace to show her around. He showed every sign of thrilling to his new home; she less so.

"All I want," she said, "is to live in a simple place where I can perform my duties as a wife."

Everything has changed in Egypt and, as with everything else, no one knows whether that promise can be kept.

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