Radical Past: Former Associate Calls Morsi a 'Master of Disguise'

By Dieter Bednarz and Volkhard Windfuhr in Cairo

Picture Gallery: Does Morsi Speak with Two Tongues? Photos
DPA

Is Mohammed Morsi a peacebroker or a virulent anti-Semite? A former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who has known Morsi for 13 years, believes that behind the Egyptian president's veneer of goodwill towards Israel lies a deep-seated hatred.

Mohammed Morsi can be very sympathetic, even toward Jews, as evidenced by an extremely friendly letter the Egyptian president sent to Israel last October. The president had personally written the letter of accreditation, for his new ambassador in Tel Aviv, to his counterpart Shimon Peres, whom he addressed as a "Dear Friend." In the letter, Morsi clearly invoked the "good relations" that "fortunately exist between our countries," and pledged to "preserve and strengthen" them.

The government in Jerusalem had not expected such warm words from a president who had emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood. Unsure whether they were perhaps the victims of a forgery, the Israelis published the letter. But Cairo confirmed that it was indeed genuine, and Jerusalem reacted with relief. The Jewish state had lost a reliable partner with the ouster of Morsi's predecessor Hosni Mubarak, and now there was hope that perhaps Morsi would not confirm all of Israel's fears.

But the Egyptian president, who is visiting Berlin this week and will meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel, a champion of Israel, appears to be a man with two faces. He is conciliatory as Egypt's leader, saying that he wants to be the "president of all Egyptians," even though only about a quarter of the country's 50 million eligible voters voted for him. And, of course, he insists that his country will fulfill all of its obligations from the Mubarak era, including both the peace treaty with Israel and a policy of close cooperation with the United States.

In mid-January, however, Western diplomats and politicians saw a very different Mohammed Morsi, a man filled with hate for the "Zionist entity," the term Islamists use for the Jewish state. An almost three-year-old video, published by the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), depicts an Islamist who is practically foaming at the mouth, as he rants about the Israelis in an interview with an Arab network. Speaking in a deep and firm voice, he calls them "bloodsuckers" and "warmongers," and says that there can be no peace with these "descendants of apes and pigs."

It was apparently more than just a regrettable moment of madness for Morsi, claims a prominent former member of the Muslim Brotherhood. After all, he says, the current president served as general inspector of the Muslim Brotherhood for years, which put him in charge of the group's online service. That service includes quotes about Israelis and Jews that testify to the same hatred as the lapses in the video.

Despite outrage internationally and at the White House over the video, Morsi was unperturbed by the furor over his remarks. In the end, his spokesman said that Morsi's words had been taken out of context, but offered no further explanation or apology. When SPIEGEL reporters appeared at the presidential palace in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis last week after having received approval for an interview with Morsi, they were turned away.

All a Pretense

To comprehend the Egyptian president and grasp how the Muslim Brotherhood shapes its members, it helps to speak with men who knew Morsi during his time with the Islamist organization -- and who also have the courage to speak openly about the group. Abdel-Jalil el-Sharnoubi, 38, talks about how dangerous this can be. Last October, after he had spoken about quitting the Brotherhood to Egyptian newspapers and in TV appearances, masked men opened fire on Sharnoubi's car with submachine guns.

For Sharnoubi, a lanky man, keeping a constant eye out for suspicious characters has become second nature. He takes a cautious look around as he walks into the Café Riche in downtown Cairo, and when he sits down, he makes sure that he has a good view of the entire establishment. He orders tea, rolls himself a cigarette and then tells the story of his time with the Muslim Brotherhood and the current president, to whom he derisively refers as "doctor."

When they first met in 2000, both men were already successful. Sharnoubi, the son of an imam in the Nile delta, joined the Brotherhood at 13. He eventually advanced within the regimented organization to become a member of its information committee. Morsi, for his part, had made it into the Egyptian parliament. Because members of the Muslim Brotherhood were not allowed to run for political office under Mubarak, Morsi masqueraded as an "independent." The two men had had "a lot of contact with each other" to further their goal of spreading the Brotherhood's message as widely as possible, says Sharnoubi.

For information expert Sharnoubi, Morsi was "a typical man from the country, a fellah with peasant origins who quickly integrated himself into the machine." At the time, claims Sharnoubi, Morsi was "downright submissive to the Brotherhood's leadership." Morsi was apparently completely opposed to the Brotherhood becoming more open, as Sharnoubi had advocated. "He fought against any internal democratization."

It seemed "inconceivable" to Sharnoubi that Morsi's group would one day assume power in Egypt. In fact, he says, he would have "found it even less likely" that Morsi, a modest member of parliament, would become president. Even in the highest government position, Morsi cannot have shed the Brotherhood's mission like an old suit, says Sharnoubi. "A man like Morsi, with such deep convictions, can't do that. If we hear anything else from him, it'll be a pretense." He explains that Morsi owes his survival under autocrat Mubarak to this "talent for assimilation," and that he is a "master of disguise."

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