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'He paid the fare': Morsi's colleagues reflect on his year in power

Close aides to Egypt's first freely elected president remember a tireless worker who repeatedly chose the country over himself
Morsi addressing world leaders at the UN General Assembly in September 2012 (AFP)

Fifteen minutes before Mohamed Morsi was set to address the United Nations General Assembly, he sat calmly in a green room with Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton.

It would be his first and only time addressing the UN as Egypt’s president, an unlikely role he had arrived at after reluctantly stepping in when the original Muslim Brotherhood nominee was disqualified.

An engineer and academic who came to the Brotherhood later in life, Morsi had risen to become a prominent opposition figure in the country, but he wasn’t after power and hadn’t wanted to run at first, say colleagues and friends.

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So when he became president in June 2012, weeks after his unexpected nomination, Egypt's new leader had to read up very quickly – and he was not quite prepared for this meeting, said Wael Hadara, one of Morsi’s advisers.

“[Bill] Clinton and [Morsi] sit in these armchairs. And then Clinton says, ‘So how large is your energy bill?’” recalls Hadara.

The former adviser says his heart immediately sank as the ex-US president shot the Egyptian leader a question of such specificity. Morsi, however, was unmoved.

“The president looks at him and then proceeds to give him a detailed accounting of Egypt’s energy production, cost, capacity, needed capital and expected return on investment for foreign investors,” Hadara said.

Clinton smiled and the two went on to discuss foreign direct investment, before Morsi took the stage.

On Monday, Morsi, whose health had deteriorated as he languished in prison for six years, collapsed during a court session in his trial over charges of espionage and was pronounced dead at a hospital soon after.

In the wake of the 67-year-old's death, Morsi’s time in power will be replayed and analysed, and he will be criticised, among other failures, for a political naivety that eventually led to his ousting.

Commentators note he wasn't the most charismatic leader, a speaker who could go off-script and one repeatedly accused by his detractors for insufficiently addressing the concerns of the Egyptian opposition.

But on Tuesday, colleagues who worked closely with Morsi during his year in power said they remember a compassionate leader who sacrificed his well-being repeatedly for his country and whose demise has left them in a state of despair.

'He abandoned his life completely'

Amr Darrag, who first met Morsi 15 years ago during an election and later served as his planning and international development minister, described his colleague's candidacy for the presidency as "his first sacrifice".

Though a senior member of the Brotherhood, Morsi was far from the Brotherhood's first choice as its candidate. He was only thrust into the role following the disqualification of Khairat al-Shater, a cannier political operative.

“It was not in his interest to run for that position, and actually, at the beginning, he was trying to decline,” Darrag told MEE. “But in the end, he realised that it was his responsibility to take that role in case Shater was ousted and this is what really happened.”

'He was working all of the time and he was expecting everybody to be up all night with him'

- Amr Darrag, minister under Morsi

Over his year in power, Darrag said working for Morsi, who slept about three or four hours a night, was “a nightmare”.

“If you travelled with him anywhere, he was working all of the time and he was expecting everybody to be up all night with him, doing work and preparing for the next meetings. He abandoned his life completely.”

Darrag, speaking from Istanbul where he lives in exile, said one thing has been playing on his mind in the hours following Morsi's death: a meeting the president had with then-EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton soon after the 2013 coup that removed him.

“She was kind of trying to convince Dr Morsi to give up and acknowledge the regime,” he recalled. “He would probably have been released at that time and, on a personal level, that would have been good for him.”

But Morsi refused. “He remained and chose to sacrifice for the principles of democracy, the rule of law and legitimacy and freedom,” Darrag said.

And then he disappeared. When he reappeared, it was in a courtroom, the only place he would appear publicly for the rest of his life.

Egyptian food, weapons and medicine

Yehia Hamed, one of the youngest members of Morsi’s cabinet, served as Egypt’s investment minister and also acted as one of a handful of close aides to the president.

On Tuesday, he called his former boss “a visionary” who believed in the will and destiny of the people of Egypt.

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“He always said, ‘I want Egypt to own its food, to own its weapons and to own its medication’,” Hamed said. “He was questioning the status quo of the entire world, starting from Egypt.”

Hamed described serving alongside Morsi as an honour, and recalled a trip to Berlin in 2013 where the president outlined his particular significance to a tourism association.

“He told them: ‘You are talking to the only freely elected president in the history of Egypt’," Hamed said. 

"Imagine. I don’t know anything that gave me honour in my life as this.”

Noticeably shaken

Hours before Morsi's defence minister, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, removed him in the 3 July 2013 coup, crowds of the president's supporters and opponents swelled on Cairo's streets, occasionally clashing with deadly results.

Hamed was there when Morsi, noticeably shaken, gave his final speech.

'Morsi said more than once that we are like someone who just came to the bus, but didn’t pay the fare yet'

- Yehia Hamid, former minister and Morsi aide 

During the speech, Morsi repeatedly used the term "legitimacy", which Hamed said had been seen by some as Morsi’s attempt to justify his continued rule, a mistaken interpretation of what the president really meant.

“When he said that ‘I would defend it with my life’, now it is clear for everyone that it was not about his role, but about the Egyptian people’s will - that he would defend the legitimacy of the people and that he would defend the legitimacy of the revolution,” Hamed said.

With Morsi’s death, Hamed said it is now clear that no one will hold the Egyptian government accountable, even while tens of thousands of other political prisoners languish in similar conditions to those the former president suffered through.

“Those who have propagated democracy in the West are silent now. People are being squashed,” he said.

“The battle with tyranny is not an easy one. Morsi said more than once that we are like someone who just came to the bus, but didn’t pay the fare yet. And he really did pay the fare yesterday.”