CAIRO — He spent time in jail during the Hosni Mubarak regime, but not as long as some fellow Islamists. He is well educated, having studied at the University of Southern California, yet still betrays his rural roots. He rose through the ranks of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood as a lackluster but loyal foot soldier.
Now, Mohammed Morsi has made history in breathtaking fashion, becoming the first Islamist to rise to the presidency of the most populous Arab nation.
Sunday’s announcement by the country’s electoral commission capped a political standoff that tested the nerves of not just Egyptians but many around the world.
The US-trained engineer who rode some improbable twists and turns in Egypt’s 16-month transition to democracy is an enigma: Despite his education, he sometimes struggles to communicate in public and can be off-putting to some secular elites.
Morsi squeaked to victory in the freest election in Egypt’s history, and now the 60-year-old university professor must prove his mettle by standing up to the ruling generals who in recent days have stripped the presidency of real power.
Morsi says he wants to overhaul Egypt’s corrupt and inefficient government agencies and repair the economy.
But the Brotherhood may have little chance to implement anything from its agenda because the military council has disbanded the Islamist-dominated Parliament and grabbed sweeping powers that leave the president with little authority over important policy.
The question now is whether he will play a leading role in taking on the generals and reversing these decrees, as supporters demand.
For 35 years, Morsi obediently followed the Muslim Brotherhood’s strict rules, abiding by the principle of unquestioned obedience to its supreme leader — a position that changed hands five times during that period and is currently held by Mohammed Badei.
Morsi has dutifully mirrored the group’s strategy of couching a hard-line doctrine with short-term pragmatism. In an example that looms large now that he has been elected, Morsi is anti-Israel but he does not call for annulling Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty.
His history makes clear he will not be the comfortable interlocutor for Israel that Mubarak was.
His first active role in the Brotherhood was through membership in an ‘‘anti-Zionist’’ committee in his Nile Delta province of Sharkiya in the late 1980s, promoting rejection of normalization with the Jewish state.
Brotherhood officials have said he will not meet with Israelis, but also will not prevent other officials from doing so.
Morsi comes from Edwa, an impoverished village in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya, where his home is built of simple, unpainted red brick.
He excelled in primary and secondary schools and then joined the school of engineering and quickly became a member of teaching staff of Zaqaziq University in his home province.
Morsi went to the United States where he obtained a doctorate at USC. Unlike many, he chose to return to Egypt and taught in his local university from 1982-85, in precision metal surfaces.