Runner-Up: Mohamed Morsi, the Power Broker

Egypt’s new president won kudos abroad and curses at home. What he does next could determine the shape of the Middle East

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Illustration by Steve Wilson for TIME

If you need proof that the Arab Spring has turned the Middle East upside down, dwell for a moment on the irony that Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s Islamist President, has managed to put the U.S. and Israel at ease even as he has filled many of his compatriots with dread.

On becoming Egypt’s first democratically elected leader on June 30, Morsi included non-Islamists in his Cabinet, ignored religious extremists’ calls for restrictions on secular liberties, curbed the power of the military and refrained from populist economic policies. He even quit his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood to strengthen his claim to represent all Egyptians. Abroad, he maintained the 33-year-old Israel-Egypt peace treaty and tried to persuade Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad to step down. In November, he leveraged the Brotherhood’s long-standing relations with Hamas to broker a cease-fire between the Palestinian group and Israel, winning international kudos in the process.

(PHOTOS: Morsi’s Life in Images)

The very day after the Gaza cease-fire took effect, however, Morsi sparked massive protests across Egypt when he announced an emergency decree granting himself more powers. The Egyptian revolutionaries who had toppled former President Hosni Mubarak immediately accused Morsi of reclaiming the dictator’s powers. Some of the protests that followed turned deadly. Morsi dropped the emergency decree but insisted that a hastily written draft constitution be put to a national referendum. Its most controversial sections define, in ambiguous terms, the extent to which Egypt will be governed by Shari‘a, or Islamic law.

For all his troubles at home, Morsi remains the Middle East’s most influential figure. He alone has the clout to keep Hamas in line with the cease-fire agreement; having brokered the deal, he now has the responsibility to ensure that the Palestinian group refrains from firing rockets into Israel. Egypt, along with Turkey, continues to press for an end to the slaughter in Syria and will play an important role in shaping any post-Assad transition. A more assertive Egypt can also be a stabilizing counterweight to Iran’s ambitions in the region. And Morsi’s handling of his country’s constitutional crisis will provide pointers for all the other Arab Spring states — and any aspiring to join their ranks — on the real prospects for Islamist democracy.

Cover Photograph by Nadav Kander for TIME

Two years after a self-immolating Tunisian fruit vendor set off the protests that would turn into revolution, the countries where the old order was toppled are, like Egypt, struggling to create order out of their new circumstances. In most places, Islamist parties were better prepared for the democratic process than the liberal revolutionaries and easily won elections; but governing — the business of managing an economy, creating jobs, fighting corruption, removing the remnants of the old regime — is proving much harder.

(INTERVIEW: A Conversation With Mohamed Morsi)

The hardest task of all? Defining the nature and laws of the newly democratic state. Like Egypt, the other Arab Spring countries want new constitutions, and in Tunisia as much as in Egypt, liberals are demanding an outsize voice in the process. In Libya and Yemen, the two other Arab Spring countries with new governments, it’s the Islamists who are agitating for a bigger say. In all these countries, the two sides disagree vehemently — and sometimes violently — on the role Islamic law must play in governance.

So far, Egypt is a cautionary tale, a study in how not to write a new constitution. Morsi’s liberal opponents are not entirely blameless: they have been intransigent and often hysterical in their opposition to any expression of the country’s Muslim identity. But the President’s Islamist brethren, who dominate the constituent assembly, have failed to heed the anxieties of the liberals and the country’s minorities, who rightly fear legalized persecution. Throughout, Morsi has shown a reluctance to rein in his former colleagues and allay the misgivings of his opponents. His actions have raised the inevitable question: Is this Islamist just an imperfect democrat or an incipient dictator?

I can’t shake the feeling that much of Egypt’s tumult might have been avoided if Morsi had extended to his fellow citizens the courtesy he has shown me. When we first met, in the summer of 2011, he was chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the new political offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Photographer Yuri Kozyrev and I were at an FJP office, a modest residential apartment in a nondescript Cairo district, to meet another official, when Morsi walked into the waiting room. Since his colleague wasn’t around, he took it upon himself to keep us company, ignoring an aide’s repeated reminders of important phone calls and meetings. With a courtly solicitousness, he asked how we were coping with the heat and whether we had been away from home long. He inquired about our nationalities (Yuri is Russian, I’m Indian) and found complimentary things to say about our respective countries.

(PHOTOSImages of Dissent: Protesting Morsi’s Decree)

As we talked, other members of the party entered the room, carrying small rugs: it was time for the late-morning prayer, one of five that Islam requires Muslims to perform daily. When Yuri asked if he could take pictures, which many Islamists find intrusive, Morsi hesitated only a moment before agreeing. Then he turned to ask me, “Would you like to join us?” In the Arab world I am frequently taken for a Muslim, and an invitation to prayer is a courtesy akin to being asked to say grace in many Christian homes. On such occasions, I always offer an embarrassed apology, which usually draws either a shrug or a look of disappointment. Morsi’s reaction took me by surprise. “It’s all right,” he said, with a reassuring smile. “I’ll pray for you.”

Morsi’s graciousness had not diminished when we met in late November as a spasm of protests racked the country in response to the emergency decree by which he had granted himself greater power. When he sat with TIME in the marble-and-stucco presidential palace, he seemed concerned less with the clamor against him than with being a considerate host. He spoke in English for our benefit, despite his obvious discomfort with the language, and he tried to illustrate his arguments with Western pop-culture references he thought we would understand.

The political crisis over the constitution is the result of not only what he did but also what he didn’t do. He failed to anticipate the anxiety that non-Islamist Egyptians would feel about an emergency decree that effectively put his decisions, and those of the constituent assembly drafting a new constitution, above the law. He neglected to communicate beforehand that this was designed to prevent the judiciary from stalling the constitution, a plausible concern since the Mubarak-appointed judges had already deep-sixed a previous attempt to write the document. The explanation that accompanied the decree’s announcement was at best peremptory and came with a patronizing subtext: This is good for you, trust me.

Perhaps he calculated that members of the liberal and secular opposition would never trust him: having led the revolution to topple Mubarak, they resented the Islamists’ success in the free and fair vote that followed. Their leaders showed a poor grasp of the democratic process, and the most prominent of them, Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, didn’t even bother to run in the elections. The liberals showed little appreciation for Morsi’s mostly secular actions in the months before the decree, hinting darkly that he was merely waiting for an opportune moment to unleash an Islamist agenda.

Whatever his reasons for springing the emergency decree without preamble, Morsi gave his liberal opponents a told-you-so moment they would exploit. In turn surprised by the ferocity of their response, he blamed shadowy, Mubarak-era figures for infiltrating the opposition and stirring up violence. It sounded exactly like the sort of thing the dictator himself was saying in the spring of 2011.

The result of the referendum — some parts of the country voted on Dec. 15, and early indications are that yes voters have the edge; the rest will do so on Dec. 22 — will present Morsi with his next tricky challenge. If the draft constitution gets the simple majority it needs to pass, he must persuade the liberals to come in from Tahrir Square: recent history has shown them to be poor losers, so it will fall to him to display his courtly side and be magnanimous in victory. If he doesn’t get the vote he needs, Morsi must create a new constituent assembly in which Islamists and liberals work together, and hope the third time’s the charm. The President is not allowed to intervene in the deliberations of the assembly, but as he offered once before, he certainly can pray for them.

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