Some things don't change. Cairo's Tahrir Square, the cradle of the Arab Spring, still mingles the smells of tear gas and roasting corn; it still feels both dangerous and festive. A year after I was here working on the 2011 Person of the Year, the Protester, there are still rival groups passionately chanting both for and against the regime. But this year the country is led by the first democratically elected leader in Egyptian history and the first elected Islamist leader in the Arab world, Mohamed Morsi.
Egypt is an ancient nation but a new democracy, and when TIME sat down with Morsi at the sumptuous presidential palace (an old hotel annexed by now imprisoned former President Hosni Mubarak), he was at pains to say, "We are still learning how to be free." Morsi, who in many ways is an accidental President, is walking a precarious line between the hardcore Islamists who reject the West entirely and the West-friendly secularists who know that Egypt is inextricably tied to the rest of the world.
Before the interview, the President reminisced about his time in the U.S. He has a graduate degree in engineering from USC and says he is still a Trojans fan. He described the ending of Planet of the Apes. We joked with him that while he cannot be President of the United States (he was born in Egypt), his two children can, both having been born in California.
His recent emergency decree, which gave him sweeping new powers, had some calling him the new Pharaoh. "Can I be?" he asked with a hearty laugh. Turning serious, he said the protesters in Tahrir Square crying out against his new powers are in fact a sign not of autocracy but of democracy.
"Morsi is like no other Islamist leader I know," says editor-at-large Bobby Ghosh, who has covered the Middle East for more than a decade. "He can find a parable in Planet of the Apes just as easily as in the Koran."
Richard Stengel, MANAGING EDITOR