Cairo - Mohammed 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 say.
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
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 recognised 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, sack a
disputed prosecutor general and amend the election law to satisfy Egypt's
The failure to clinch a deal shows 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 may be the only "honest broker" and it is not giving
Its foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, returns to Cairo on Wednesday in
a fresh effort to forge consensus - though there was little sign of that on
Tuesday when an interim government was sworn in and the Brotherhood denounced
it as "illegitimate".
Deal "came close"
People 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," Hamdeen Sabahi, leader of the
left-wing party Popular Current, told Reuters. "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.
The outline deal, a draft of which was seen by Reuters, would also have
endorsed a stalled $4.8bn International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan. That in turn
could have unlocked wider economic aid and investment in the shattered economy.
Morsi, Katatni and senior aides are detained by the army at unknown
locations and cannot tell their side of the story.
Right until the moment the military toppled him on 3 July, the president
went on proclaiming his electoral legitimacy and showed little sign of
willingness to share power.
In his final public appearances, after the head of the armed forces had gone
public on 23 June 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
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."
The United States threw its weight behind the EU initiative rather than
trying to forge a deal of its own.
This was partly 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
US 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
Morsi never rejected the EU proposal outright, participants said. But either
he was too stubborn or he was unable to reach a consensus in the Muslim
Brotherhood leadership in favour of it, and events intervened to blow the
initiative off course.
"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 7 April 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
"Contrary to what the Brotherhood is saying now, the army did its best
to keep Morsi in office," one participant said.
Morsi did make some goodwill gestures to the opposition but he 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.
The 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
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.
The opposition denounced a Brotherhood power grab. When Morsi eventually
reshuffled the cabinet, he kept the widely criticised 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
He wielded neither the big chequebook 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.