CAIRO/PARIS - Mohamed Morsi might still be president of Egypt today if
he had grasped a political deal brokered by the European Union with
opposition parties in April, Egyptian politicians and Western diplomats
Convinced that election victories gave them a sufficient
basis to rule, Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood spurned the offer to
bridge the most populous Arab nation's deep political divide. Less than
three months later, the army overthrew him after mass anti-government
Under a compromise crafted in months of shuttle
diplomacy by EU envoy Bernardino Leon, six secular opposition parties
allied in the National Salvation Front would have recognized Morsi's
legitimacy and agreed to participate in parliamentary elections they had
threatened to boycott.
In return, Morsi would have agreed to
replace Prime Minister Hisham Kandil and five key ministers to form a
technocratic national unity cabinet, to sack a disputed prosecutor
general and to amend the election law to satisfy Egypt's constitutional
The failure to clinch a deal illustrates the challenge
facing the EU as it seeks to raise its profile in an area where the
United States was long the sole power broker. But given deep antipathy
to Washington on both sides of Egyptian politics, the EU is not giving
EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, was to return to
Cairo on Wednesday in a fresh effort to forge consensus - though there
was little sign of that Tuesday, when an interim government was sworn in
and the Brotherhood denounced it as "illegitimate."Deal 'came close'
familiar with the talks said Saad el-Katatni, leader of the
Brotherhood's political wing, helped negotiate the deal but could not
sell it to Morsi and key Brotherhood leaders.
"We did our best to
reach an agreement. We came very close, but in the end Morsi's position
didn't change," said Hamdeen Sabahi, leader of the left-wing party
Popular Current. "He demanded an unconditional dialogue without
prerequisites, agenda or objectives.
"If Morsi had accepted these
confidence-building steps, the opposition pledged to fully acknowledge
his legitimacy and enter parliamentary elections," Sabahi said.
outline deal, a draft of which was seen by Reuters, would also have
endorsed a stalled $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan.
That in turn could have unlocked wider economic aid and investment in
the shattered economy.
Right until the moment the military
toppled him on July 3, the president went on proclaiming his electoral
legitimacy and showed little sign of willingness to share power. Morsi,
Katatni and senior aides are detained by the army at unknown locations
and cannot tell their side of the story.
In his final public
appearances, after the head of the armed forces had gone public on June
23 to call for a political truce, Morsi accused his opponents of
rejecting various offers he made. A former presidential aide, Wael
Haddara, noted that Morsi "indicated that he would oversee the formation
of a coalition government" in his final television address hours before
the military overthrew him.
"The primary issue facing Egypt was
violence and unrest," Haddara told Reuters in an email. "Given that poll
after poll after poll showed the parties that make up the NSF unable to
develop any popularity, an important question to ask is why a
government made up of those parties would have been any more able to
avert or mitigate violence."
Senior Brotherhood politician Farid
Ismail, interviewed at a pro-Morsi protest sit-in after the military
takeover, confirmed that he and other colleagues had participated in
talks with the EU envoy on a political compromise, and said NSF parties
had been offered "active participation" in a reshuffled cabinet.
But he said: "There was a hidden intention to reject everything until we got where we got to: the military coup."US backed initiative
United States threw its weight behind the EU initiative rather than
trying to forge a deal of its own. This was in part because the Muslim
Brotherhood suspected Washington of plotting with the army against it,
while the secular opposition and anti-Islamist Egyptian media accused
the Americans of being in cahoots with the Brotherhood.
Secretary of State John Kerry telephoned Morsi in March and said he
supported the European drive, diplomats said. US ambassador Anne
Patterson accompanied Leon to a meeting with Morsi a few days later,
underlining Washington's endorsement.
Morsi never rejected the EU
proposal outright, according to participants. But either he was too
stubborn or he was unable to reach a consensus in the Muslim Brotherhood
leadership in favor of it, and events intervened to blow the initiative
"There was a well described, detailed proposal
accepted by all elements of the (opposition) National Salvation Front,
which was sent to Morsi," a person involved in the talks said. "We never
got an answer."
The proposal was at the heart of a visit to
Cairo on April 7, when Ashton had separate meetings with Morsi and the
main opposition leaders. Her mission was overshadowed by sectarian
violence outside Cairo's Coptic cathedral, which further undermined
opposition trust in Morsi and the Brotherhood.
On that trip,
Ashton also met armed forces commander General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the
man who led the military intervention to oust Morsi. Participants said
Sisi had also supported the EU initiative, saying the army did not want
to intervene in politics and would welcome a broader national consensus.
"Contrary to what the Brotherhood is saying now, the army did its best to keep Morsi in office," one participant said.Goodwill
did make some goodwill gestures to the opposition but did not go far
enough to break the deadlock. When the constitutional court rejected the
election law passed by the Islamist-dominated upper house of
parliament, he agreed to put back parliamentary elections from April
until late in the year.
He also hinted he was willing to change the reviled prosecutor, accused of Islamist bias, but never actually did so.
Other incidents combined to deepen mistrust between Morsi and the opposition, and put a deal out of reach.
"The main problem was that there was a complete lack of trust among all of them," a European diplomat said.
Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice newspaper splashed an article
accusing senior liberal politician Mohamed ElBaradei of receiving
massive funds from the United Arab Emirates. A National Salvation Front
statement branded Morsi a "fascist."
Morsi's party, which saw the
judiciary as packed with supporters of ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak
bent on obstructing its policies, backed another Islamist party's bill
to remove 3,000 judges by lowering their retirement age to 60 from 70.
opposition denounced a Brotherhood power grab. When Morsi eventually
reshuffled the cabinet, he kept the widely criticized Kandil and made no
opening to the opposition.
Leon, a former Spanish and EU
diplomat steeped in the Arab-Israeli peace process, was appointed EU
special representative for the Southern Mediterranean in 2011 after the
Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria.
wielded neither the big checkbook nor the military firepower and
military-to-military relations that underpin US diplomacy. Leon's
advantage, acknowledged by Muslim Brotherhood officials now ejected from
office, was that he was seen by all sides as an honest broker. But he
never managed to "deliver" the Brotherhood to a deal its leaders were
not sure they wanted.