AL-ADWA, Egypt (Reuters) - Water buffalo wander through the dirt roads of Mohamed Mursi’s village, less than two hours’ drive from the Cairo palace where Egypt’s Islamist president-elect has begun work.
Yet Mursi, unlike Hosni Mubarak, remains close to his humble Nile Delta roots and can perhaps bridge the gap between ruler and ruled that yawned so wide under his ousted predecessor.
At least his younger brother thinks so.
“We don’t want the president living on one planet and the people on another,” Sayed Mursi, wearing a traditional robe, told Reuters in the family’s rural home, crudely built like many others with steel bars poking up from the roof to allow the addition of a new floor as need requires or money allows.
Mursi, 60, who won the presidency for the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, has no plans to move to the presidential palace from his house in Cairo, he said after his victory was declared on June 24, 500 days after a popular revolt deposed Mubarak.
“We cannot return to the past,” said 49-year-old Sayed, whose mobile has hardly stopped ringing since his brother became Egypt’s first freely elected president and the only one not pulled from top military ranks.
Army officials, traditionally wary of Islamists, refused to comment on Mursi’s character or his ability to lead Egypt, but privately expressed disappointment in his apparent disregard for protocol when he chose to start work from the presidential palace this week before being sworn in.
Mursi, the talented son of a peasant farmer, studied in the sprawling cities of Cairo and Los Angeles before rising to lead the Muslim Brotherhood’s small opposition bloc in Mubarak’s otherwise compliant parliament from 2000 to 2005.
That experience in public life did not seem to instill any presidential ambitions in him. When he was informed that the Brotherhood’s first-choice candidate Khairat al-Shater had been ruled out and he would run instead, one aide said Mursi buried his face in his hands for a few moments to take in the news.
His accession to the highest office in the land, albeit one the military has already drained of powers, has surprised many Egyptians and dismayed secular-minded young people who did not revolt against Mubarak to smooth an Islamist’s path to power.
After Shater was barred from running, some branded him the movement’s “spare tyre”.
Critics see him as a Brotherhood functionary who has shown little hint of charisma so far, a quality also conspicuously lacking in his predecessor Mubarak whose dour approach contrasted with the political risk-taker Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser whose eloquence gripped the Arab world.
Mursi looked stiff and uneasy at the start of his election campaign, when he clogged his speeches with lists that were swiftly mocked by Egyptians with a taste for grand speeches.
He has little time to grow into the presidential role, faced with the aspirations of 82 million people seeking responsive, honest government, security and relief from economic hardship.
Praised by friends, family and Islamist colleagues as diligent, determined and even jovial in private, to many Egyptians he is president by default and a front man for the Islamist group that has been the army’s adversary for decades.
“He is a man who follows a (Brotherhood) system. Even as a leader he follows a system,” said Mohamed Salama, a 24-year-old engineering student at Zagazig University in the Nile Delta where Mursi taught from 1985 to 2010.
Describing him as a well-respected professor, Salama, who met Mursi privately in November shortly before the Brotherhood swept a parliamentary poll, said the presidency was “bigger” than Mursi. He argued, like many Egyptians, that Brotherhood leaders, as well as the generals, would really wield power.
“Dr Mursi will not rule, firstly because the military council won’t let him rule, secondly because he is a member of the Brotherhood,” said Salama, although Mursi has resigned from the movement to be “president for all Egyptians”.
One possible eminence grise is Shater, the Brotherhood’s deputy leader, chief strategist and financier. A Mubarak-era criminal conviction, which he contests, blocked his candidacy.
In early campaigning, Shater’s towering frame overshadowed the stocky, bespectacled Mursi, who described his presidential bid as more a duty than ambition.
“We are worried,” Mursi said, “that God will ask us, on the day of reckoning: ‘What did you do when you saw that the nation was in need of sacrifice and effort?’”
Some see that loyalty as defining his presidency.
“He is dedicated to the organization. He is very conservative and not open to political and national forces, but he is a clever person,” said Mohamed Habib, a member of the Brotherhood’s guidance bureau for almost a quarter of century, overlapping with a period when Mursi was on it too.
“But on the issue of creative or innovative thinking, perhaps he doesn’t have that,” said Habib, who quit the Brotherhood in 2011 over its post-uprising policies.
Mursi’s colleagues at university dismiss talk of man lacking leadership potential or an independent mind.
“He can take decisions alone ... He won’t go asking for advice from Mohamed Badie (the Brotherhood’s supreme guide) or Khairat al-Shater,” said Christian colleague, Ishac Ibrahim, 66, a professor of steel structures and bridges.
He described Mursi as a hardworking man who would greet him on Christian holidays and who stuck to his principles.
“When he sees something wrong, he stands against it. He doesn’t just go with the flow.”
Hossam Attiya, 56, who worked under him in the engineering department of Zagazig University, called Mursi a painstaking academic who was strict with any students who lacked commitment.
Seated on a tattered armchair in a university office with an old air-conditioner rattling in the corner, Attiya said Mursi could have headed the institution if known Brotherhood members had not been barred from such posts.
Mursi was Attiya’s graduate supervisor at Cairo University in the mid-1970s. “He was very detailed in his reviews. He really tired me with it, but it was very useful,” he said.
At that time, Attiya said, Mursi was a devout Muslim but no more so than most Egyptians, who pray regularly and observe the Ramadan fast each year. That changed when Mursi travelled to California to study at the end of 1978.
“He got to know the Brotherhood in America,” said Attiya. “In America, there is corruption and piety ... The pious group around him was the Brotherhood, and they embraced him.”
His brother Sayed gives a similar account. “He went a regular guy and came back a Muslim Brother,” he said, speaking in a small room with flaking green paint in the family three-storey home built in al-Adwa 1981 while Mursi was in America.
Other Islamists have travelled a similar road. In a famed but extreme example, Brotherhood thinker Sayed Qutb railed against American society and culture after studying there in the late 1940s. His hardline views are often credited with inspiring modern-day Islamist radical groups such as al Qaeda.
For many exiles, connecting with the Brotherhood or other groups was just a way to find familiarity in a distant land.
Yet Professor Farghalli Mohamed, an Egyptian-born academic who taught and befriended Mursi during his three years of research at the University of Southern California, said the new president never appeared to be uncomfortable in the West.
He was clearly pious but, unlike some, did not seem overtly perturbed by free-wheeling Los Angeles. Mohamed said Mursi’s public persona now was a world away from the light-hearted man who used to play with his two young children.
“He used to laugh and joke, he had a big smile. I felt sad that this smile has gone. When he speaks to people now he is very stiff, he looks angry,” said Mohamed by telephone from the University of California, Irvine, where he now works.
Mursi was in America in 1978 when Egypt was negotiating the U.S.-brokered treaty with Israel that was signed the next year. Deeply unpopular with Islamists, it cost the deal’s architect Anwar Sadat his life in 1981 at the hands of Islamist militants. A little-known Mubarak was propelled into the presidency.
Mohamed could not recall a single time when the peace with Israel caused any heated debate during Mursi’s visits.
Mursi’s doctorate on ceramic materials, research he has said was of use to NASA, was sponsored via a U.S. federal government grant received by his direct supervisor. He later moved to California State University, Northridge, to teach until 1985.
Betrothed before he went to the United States, his wife Nagla joined him there. Two of their five children were born in America and now have U.S. citizenship.
Mursi told Reuters his wife, who is veiled, would not take the kind of high-profile public role adopted by Mubarak’s first lady Suzanne - whose critics accused her of maneuvering to ensure that one of her sons succeeded his father.
On his return from California, Mursi went to the university in Zagazig, a city in the Nile Delta north of Cairo near his home village and also a stronghold of the Brotherhood.
Mursi was detained only briefly under Mubarak compared to some colleagues, such as Shater, who spent years in jail.
His image is of a family man. One of his more than 20 nephews and nieces, law student Mohamed Saeed, 23, shows pictures on his mobile of the new president in a peasant robe, smiling in his front room with a grand-daughter on his knee.
Near the village, rice grows in two small family plots Mursi’s father was given when President Nasser expropriated land from the wealthy owners and redistributed it.
Sayed said his brother, who would work in the fields on holidays from Cairo University, was still attached to his father’s fields. “Dr Mohamed,” he added, using his brother’s academic title, “insists that we keep them as they are.”
Additional reporting by Marwa Awad; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alistair Lyon