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Morsi spurned US-brokered deals to remain in office

Mohammed Morsi spoke at a June rally organized by hardline Islamists loyal to him.

AP/File

Mohammed Morsi spoke at a June rally organized by hardline Islamists loyal to him.

CAIRO — The abrupt end of Egypt’s first Islamist government was the culmination of months of escalating tensions and ultimately futile American efforts to broker a solution that would keep President Mohammed Morsi in his elected office, at least in name, if not in power.

As Morsi huddled in his guard’s quarters during his last hours as the country’s first elected leader, he received a call from an Arab foreign minister with a final offer to end a standoff with the country’s top generals, senior advisers with the president said.

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The foreign minister said he was acting as an emissary of Washington, the advisers said, and he asked if Morsi would accept the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet, one that would take over all legislative powers and replace his chosen provincial governors.

The aides said they already knew what Morsi’s answer would be. He had responded to a similar proposal already by pointing at his neck. “This before that,” he had told his aides, repeating a vow to die before accepting what he considered a de facto coup and thus a crippling blow to Egyptian democracy.

His top foreign policy adviser, Essam el-Haddad, then left the room to call the United States ambassador, Anne W. Patterson, to say that Morsi refused. When he returned, he said he had spoken to Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, and that the military takeover was about to begin, senior aides said.

“Mother just told us that we will stop playing in one hour,” an aide texted an associate, playing on a sarcastic Egyptian expression for the country’s Western patron, “Mother America.”

The White House had no immediate comment on American involvement in the final hours of the Morsi government.

A new alliance of youthful activists and the Mubarak-era elite drove the street protests. The demonstrations had raised pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood, the once-outlawed Islamist group that had finally come to power with Morsi after the ouster of the former president, Hosni Mubarak. And the alliance between Morsi and the nation’s top generals was gradually unraveling.

In the end, senior Brotherhood officials said, Morsi’s adamant response to that last offer — a combination of idealism and stubbornness — epitomized his rule. It may also have doomed his presidency.

As long ago as the fall, he had spoken fatalistically of the possibility of his own ouster, his senior advisers said. “Do you think this is the peak?” he asked a visibly anxious aide during his first major political crisis. “No,” Morsi said with resignation, “The peak will be when you see my blood flowing on the floor.”

This was just after what his advisers and Muslim Brotherhood leaders now acknowledge was the defining blunder of his one-year presidency. Battling Mubarak-appointed judges who had dissolved the Islamist-led Parliament, Morsi had issued a presidential declaration in November that set his authority above the courts until a constitutional convention could finish its work.

Tens of thousands of protesters denounced his tactic as authoritarian, setting off the first major street fighting between his supporters and opponents. Even some of his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood were angered, the group’s leaders and presidential advisers said. They complained that he had not consulted them, but still expected them to defend him in the streets.

“If I were not in my place, I would think he wants to be a dictator,” one Muslim Brotherhood leader said when he heard the news on television, a colleague recounted on condition of anonymity.

Morsi, though, feared he would appear weak if he backed down, his advisers said. “The president is headstrong,” lamented another Brotherhood leader.

Morsi never believed the generals would turn on him as long as he respected their autonomy and privileges, his advisers said. He had been the Muslim Brotherhood’s designated envoy for talks with the ruling military council after the ouster of Mubarak. And his counterpart on the council was General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

The Brotherhood was naturally suspicious of the military, its historical opponent, but General Sissi cultivated Morsi and other leaders, one of them said, including going out of his way to show that he was a pious Muslim. “That is how the relationship between the two of them started,” said a senior Brotherhood official close to Morsi. “He trusted him.”

The two grew so close that Morsi caught his advisers by surprise when he promoted General Sissi to defense minister last summer as part of a deal that persuaded the military for the first time to let the president take full control of his government.

The relationship with the military was Morsi’s “personal file,” one adviser said.

But during the fall protests charging the Brotherhood with monopolizing power, General Sissi first signaled that his departure from politics might not be so permanent.

Without consulting Morsi, General Sissi publicly invited all the country’s political factions — from social democrats to ultraconservative sheiks — to a meeting to try to hammer out a compromise on a more inclusive government.Morsi quashed the idea, advisers said.

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