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As student in US, Egypt's Morsi described as conservative but open-minded

In the days since Mohamed Morsi was named president-elect of Egypt, two narratives have emerged about the 60-year-old engineer.

The first paints Morsi as an anti-American, anti-woman, anti-Christian and anti-Israel enforcer for the Muslim Brotherhood who will, despite his claims, turn back the clock in Egypt.

The second narrative, supported by two engineering professors from Egypt who knew Morsi when he was an engineering student and professor in California for seven years from 1978 to 1985, depicts a quiet, hardworking young man more driven by studies than politics.

Professor Nagi El Naga, who knew Morsi as an assistant professor in engineering at California State University Northridge, described his former colleague as kind, open-minded and conservative. At the time, Morsi was 30, with a wife and two young, U.S.-born children. His wife covered her hair with a veil; El Naga’s wife, a professor, did not.

“He was somewhat more conservative than me as far as religion, but there’s a difference between being conservative and being extremist,” said El Naga, who still teaches at Northridge. “He was open-minded. We had differences but these differences never prevented us from sharing dinner and things like that.

“He was not irrational,” El Naga continued. “He was sincere in what he believed in.”

Morsi has been described as the accidental candidate; in April, he replaced Khairat El-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood’s more charismatic and effusive choice who was deemed ineligible to run. Morsi became the chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, a group with ties to the Brotherhood that emerged after the 2011 revolution. He was an independent member of parliament from 2000 to 2005.

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He won the election with 51 percent of the vote, edging out Ahmed Shafiq, who was viewed as an extension of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Mubarak resigned in February of 2011 after 30 years in control.  

Affable, hardworking
Professor Farghalli Mohamed of University of California said he was surprised to see his former graduate student join the Muslim Brotherhood. He said Morsi prayed five times a day and observed Ramadan, but did not discuss religion or politics, nor did he grow a light beard, as did the more devout Muslim students.

Rather, Mohamed remembers Morsi as an affable, hardworking and unmarried young man who joined his family at their home and on outings to the Magic Mountain amusement park.

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“I saw students from the Middle East at the time whose views were very conservative, who didn’t like what they saw in America in terms of social values -- they didn’t like the dress code of women,” Mohamed said. “When you visit them in their house, they are very conservative. Usually you don’t see their wives. But Mohamed Morsi, he met with my wife, and my wife doesn’t (wear a veil).”

In 1985, Morsi traveled to Egypt and never returned to California.

El Naga and Mohamed, who have lost touch with Morsi, have differing theories on why Egypt's president-elect joined the Brotherhood.

Mohamed believes Morsi would not have joined the Brotherhood had he returned to Cairo to teach, rather than taking a position at a small university in the more conservative northern part of Egypt.

El Naga, however, believes that Morsi joined the Brotherhood because he shared one of their values: to fight corruption in the Mubarak regime.   

Morsi quits Muslim Brotherhood after election

When El Naga heard Morsi speak on Sunday, he said he believed the new president’s claims that he would unify the country.

“When I saw him talking it brought me back to many years back,” El Naga said. “I felt he was the same person I was with 30 years ago.”

Mohamed was less enthusiastic.

“I feel sad for Morsi,” he said. “He was elected as president -- that is great -- but at the moment it is vague for him. He has no constitution on which to rely on to govern the country. There is no Congress, and then the military council is still in control.”

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