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Morsi: Egypt's divisive Islamist president

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The day he was sworn in as Egypt's first civilian president in June 2012, Mohamed Morsi told a cheering crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square he would be a "president for all Egyptians".

But one year later, the country is deeply divided.

In a speech marking his turbulent first year in power, Morsi warned that the "polarisation has reached a stage that could threaten our democratic experience and paralyse the nation and cause chaos".

A retiring individual, bearded and bespectacled, Morsi's informal manner and casual language endeared him to some during his first months as head of state.

But today, walls in Cairo streets are covered with graffiti depicting him variously as a sheep, a pharaoh or a vampire.

He is the subject of much criticism and ridicule and is a favourite target of hugely popular satirist Bassem Youssef on his weekly television show.

A former senior leader of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, the 62-year-old Morsi had vowed to uphold the goals of the 2011 revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak, and also to share power with other parties.

His supporters say he derives his legitimacy from the first free presidential election in Egypt's history, and that the challenges he faces -- corrupt and inefficient institutions, economic troubles and religious tensions -- were inherited from the previous regime.

But his critics see him as a cunning Muslim Brotherhood apparatchik, methodically placing Islamists in key positions, seeking to extend sharia (Islamic law) and return to an authoritarian regime rather than put the country on the path to democracy and economic progress.

Some say he is a new pharaoh, others accuse him of being a frontman for the Muslim Brotherhood, subservient to the movement's supreme guide, Mohammed Badie.

In his frequent visits abroad, Morsi seeks to integrate Egypt with leading emerging nations such as China and Brazil, while maintaining ties with the West and specifically the United States, reassuring them he would uphold a 1979 peace agreement with Israel.

Morsi became the Brotherhood's presidential candidate only after its first choice, Khairat El-Shater, was disqualified from standing.

Many had written off Morsi as an uncharismatic substitute, saying he would be unable to muster widespread support.

But the powerful Islamist movement mobilised its formidable resources and supporters behind Morsi to beat former airforce chief Ahmed Shafiq, who was also Mubarak's last prime minister.

In August 2012, Morsi ousted Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, former head of Egypt's army, who ruled the country as head of state after Mubarak's fall in February, 2011.

But the army, which has remained on the sidelines of politics since Morsi came to power, broke its silence this week to warn that it would intervene if violence broke out.

Born in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya, Morsi graduated with an engineering degree from Cairo University in 1975.

He received a PhD from the University of Southern California, where he was an assistant professor, in 1982.

He served as an MP from 2000 to 2005. He was detained for seven months in 2006 for taking part in a demonstration in support of reformist judges.

In 2010, Morsi become a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood and a member of its politburo. He made several anti-semitic comments which recently resurfaced in the press.

Washington slammed the remarks, which Morsi said had been taken out of context.

He was jailed again on the morning of January 28, 2011, a day after the Brotherhood announced it would join the protests that would topple president Mubarak almost two weeks later.

Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders arrested at the time served only a few days before being sprung from jail in massive prison breaks across the country.

The Brotherhood believes in establishing an Islamic state gradually and through peaceful means, but Morsi's focus has been mostly on issues affecting the majority of Egyptians since the revolt, such as the deteriorating economy.

Morsi is married, with five children and three grandchildren.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130627/morsi-egypts-divisive-islamist-president