Mohammed Mursi never wanted to be Egypt’s president, but he is now centre stage in the race to choose a new head of state after the flag bearer of his group, the Muslim Brotherhood, was banned from running.
Mursi spoke to thousands of Brotherhood supporters this week at a stadium in the town of Zagazig, 90 kilometres (56 miles) north of Cairo in the Nile Delta.
The venue was packed with more than 20,000 people, including youngsters who had scaled the walls to avoid the queues, as Mursi, the Brotherhood’s candidate for the first presidential election since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak began to speak.
Several came from small villages throughout the governorate of Sharqiya in buses chartered by the Brotherhood which had pictures of Mursi’s bearded face and thin spectacles pasted on them.
Mursi, head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, spoke with a slight accent from the region as he prepares for the first round of presidential election scheduled for May 23 and May 24.
“We want nothing from this world. We only want the good of this country,” said Mursi, an engineer by profession, who then spent a long time discussing local issues, including garbage collection and criticising the “criminal Mubarak and his gang.”
“We peasants are unable to pick up our garbage … We can’t make bread, and even when we do it is inedible,” he lamented.
“Resources are numerous but wasted,” he added before ending with a prayer asking God to unify “the Egyptians, Muslims and Christians, men, women, children and old people” and to “help make Egypt a country respected around the world which sends a message of peace.”
“Mursi for president!” shouted the crowd as a huge banner was unfolded on the platform carrying the official slogan of the Brotherhood, “Renaissance, the will of the people.”
It is also named after the programme developed by wealthy businessman Khairat al-Shater, who was the first choice of the Brotherhood for the presidency but was disqualified because of a jail term.
Ironically, he has in prison on charges of terrorism and money laundering under the regime of Mubarak who was ousted after a popular uprising in February last year.
“The renaissance programme is not related to a person, it is for the entire nation,” insists Mohammed Wahdan, an Brotherhood official.
“We asked Dr. Mursi to stand even when he did not desire.
The Brotherhood intends to turn Mursi’s 11th-hour candidacy into an asset after the initial setback from Shater’s elimination, by presenting him as a man not seeking power, but sacrificing himself for a cause.
Amid cheers, Mursi honoured the members of the Brotherhood “who sacrificed themselves, sacrificed their children and their money for what we are here today.”
Founded in 1928 and banned in 1954, the Muslim Brotherhood was tolerated under Mubarak, but was regularly subjected to arrest campaigns and many of their members have served prison sentences.
Most are convinced by Mursi, while some are sceptical.
“I’m entirely convinced (by him) and anyway what counts is not the person, it’s the project,” said Iman al-Azab, a 47-year-old pharmacist.
Sami Othman, an accountant, said “Dr Mursi has a wide base that supports him. Brothers do not want a post, they only want the interest of Egypt.”
But Samir al-Hanafi, a 24-year-old journalism student, smiling mockingly in a dissenting voice.
“I came to see if he would convince me but he failed,” he said.
“The brothers have no principles. They will be a second NDP,” he said, referring to Mubarak’s now dissolved National Democratic Party.
Hanafi is now campaigning for Abdelmoneim Abul Fotouh, a one-time senior member of the Brotherhood, who was expelled from the group.