Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, July 2, 2012.
As reports surfaced on Monday that former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi had collapsed in a courtroom and was dead on arrival at a nearby hospital, the Egyptian state tried to erase Morsi’s complicated legacy. His death at age 67 was the result of state-directed repression, and just remembering him poses a threat to the current government in Cairo.
The state-run newspaper Al-Ahram called him by his full given name, Mohamed Morsi El-Ayyat, in a 41-word obituary that read as if an ordinary man had died of natural causes, not that a past head of state had succumbed after speaking in court. It was jarring to see the flagship state paper, which had chronicled his daily acts as president, write him off entirely. An Egyptian news anchor accidentally read out “sent by a Samsung device” after delivering a teleprompter news brief, suggesting that it had been copied from a senior official’s text message—quite literally following the state’s script.
“Morsi always underestimated the animosity of the military, the private sector, and some of Egypt’s neighbors,” Anne Patterson, who served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 2011 to 2013, told me. “If he had been a more competent and sophisticated leader, he might have been able to handle them more effectively. But now the Islamic movement is discredited; the Brotherhood weakened if not destroyed; and the most repressive government in Egypt’s history in power for the foreseeable future.”
It is worth remembering that 13.2 million Egyptian voters elected the Muslim Brotherhood politician in a protest vote in June 2012. He triumphed in a runoff against Ahmed Shafik, ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s final prime minister, in what was mainly a referendum on the ancien régime. In theory, Morsi’s year in office represented a rupture with the past: He was the first non-military man to take the reins of the country since the fall of the monarchy in 1952. But he died as one of the tens of thousands of Egyptians currently being held in squalid conditions behind bars and without a fair trial.
“So many players did not want to change the status quo. It was basically an uphill battle for everybody,” says Khaled Al-Qazzaz, a former Morsi aide who attended his meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, and Vladimir Putin.
As president, Morsi failed to rally the nation around a reckoning with the Mubarak regime’s crimes against the Egyptian people. He also failed to re-institute law and order. These two failures added up to something greater: He did not reform the old systems in a way that would ensure social justice, which had been a rallying cry of the Tahrir Square protesters. Nor did his economic policies stem skyrocketing inflation or poverty (he went through three finance ministers in a single year). On the security front, terrorist attacks in the Sinai escalated.
The problem wasn’t just that Morsi was an Islamist with a limited commitment to democratic values and freedoms; it was also that he didn’t know what he was doing. He had been a third- or fourth-choice candidate after more prominent Muslim Brothers were disqualified, and after the Brotherhood had waffled for a full year about whether even to field a candidate in the first presidential balloting after the 2011 revolution. His affiliation with the Brotherhood—the shadowy group which was deemed illegal for decades but that, in the context of a political opening squired by President Hosni Mubarak in the mid-2000s, began fielding candidates as independents—would always make him suspect in the eyes of many Egyptians. His only qualification for leading the country was that he was a good bureaucrat. The highest praise of Morsi in his previous life in parliament was that he had been “a competent manager.”
But even had he been charismatic and visionary, Morsi’s task of helming a country that had been run by various forms of military dictatorship for decades may have been doomed from the start. As a transitional figure, he was handed a stacked deck. And when he tried in August 2012 to wrest powers from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which retained authority over the Defense Ministry and other key institutions, by ousting the defense minister, his appointment as the new minister was General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the very individual who would stage a coup against him.
From 2012 to 2013, Cairo was a city of weekly demonstrations that frequently turned violent, giving the feeling that Morsi wasn’t in control of the police and military. Protests were so intense that the entirety of the Suez Canal region (three governorates including large cities like Port Said and Ismailia) was temporarily put under martial law.
Morsi himself was hardly a democrat and his administration used a flawed referendum to push through a constitution that had illiberal elements: Freedom of religion was reserved for monotheistic faiths only, there were few protections for economic rights, and women’s rights were not inscribed therein.
Meanwhile, his team encouraged lawsuits against writers, artists, and critics—mobilizing Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi attorneys to sue secular, opposition voices. In response, mockery of Morsi was unprecedented, even though a law against insulting the president was still on the books. Satirists flouted the regulation anyway. Counterintuitively, Egyptian satirical life flourished about—and under—his incompetence.
MORSI WAS PEDANTIC. When he took the oath of office at Cairo University in the summer of 2012, he began by apologizing to the student body for causing a postponement of their exams. He was a professor, not a militant, but in his speech he also paid tribute to the Egyptians who had lost their lives in the 2011 revolution:
Ladies and gentlemen, the Egyptian people have made great accomplishments through the sacrifices of the honorable martyrs, great achievements we will safeguard and never relinquish, because the people suffered so much for so long, with hundreds of innocent lives lost and thousands of citizens maimed and wounded.
He went on to discuss the role he saw Egypt playing in the world, its support for the Palestinian cause, and the urgency of passing a new constitution. Morsi failed on each and every one of those issues, and in so doing sealed his fate.
About a year later, Cairo intellectuals led the first protests against Morsi’s functionary in the Ministry of Culture, foreshadowing a countrywide revolt against the president in the long, hot summer of 2013. By the end of June, demonstrators under the banner “Rebel” gathered in Tahrir Square and in other public spaces across the nation, with millions taking to the streets and elements of the deep state reportedly encouraging further demonstrations. Morsi in turn isolated himself within a circle of advisers who, like him, didn’t know what they were doing.
As Morsi’s first year in office came to a close, the Armed Forces issued an ultimatum for him to step down. Morsi tried to reassert his legitimacy in two rambling speeches. “If the price for safeguarding legitimacy is my blood, then I am prepared to sacrifice my blood for the cause of safety and legitimacy of this homeland,” said Morsi in his final speech as president. His uncaptivating, almost hysterical remarks failed to rally the nation around him.
The military arrested Morsi on July 3, 2013. Khaled El-Qazzaz, who now lives in Toronto after himself spending a year in Tora Prison, told me that prior to his arrest, Morsi had been in constant negotiations with the Armed Forces: “He refused to leave his post until the last moment.”
Morsi was initially held in an undisclosed location, later to be revealed as Burj Al-Arab Prison outside Alexandria. He was later moved to the notorious Scorpion wing of Tora Prison, where he spent his final years. “Stories of torture and mistreatment were legendary here,” writes former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, of visiting Morsi’s colleague Khairat El-Shater in Scorpion in August 2013, “and you could feel the grimness of the place as we walked down the several dimly lit and foul-smelling corridors toward the warden’s office.”
While El-Sisi consolidated power, anti-coup demonstrations grew across the nation, posing a Tiananmen-sized conundrum for the military. Days later, on August 14, Egyptian authorities killed over 1,150 protesters, many of whom were pro-Morsi activists and Muslim Brotherhood supporters, in five different encampments. Since then, President El-Sisi, who replaced Morsi after his arrest, has used every measure—legal and extralegal—to disband the Muslim Brotherhood.
The El-Sisi government also began calling Morsi and his colleagues terrorists. By December 2013, the interim military government had designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist entity, stripping its members of basic rights and, in the process, dehumanizing them. News channels in Egypt faithfully replicated this narrative.
Morsi’s death was the grim consequence of these acts of dehumanization. The Egyptian state had not ensured that he had been provided adequate food, medicine, and health care. He had been held in solitary confinement, 23 hours a day for six years. The State Department’s most recent Human Rights Report noted that Morsi’s family “stated he remained in solitary confinement and denied medical treatment for his diabetes, resulting in impaired vision in one eye, among other complications.” He had only been allowed three meetings with his family over this period.
MORSI CLOSED HIS first remarks as president by saying, “I reiterate that the blood of the martyrs and the hundreds of wounded, maimed and injured are a huge responsibility that I proudly carry on my shoulders until I exact just retribution for them.” This week many onetime supporters, including the former head of the Tunisian Ennahdha movement, Rachid Ghannouchi, have described Morsi himself as a martyr.
But with the Trump administration’s help, the Egyptian government may be able to let him fade into the nameless masses of other dead.
“The United States is aware that the Government of Egypt is investigating the death of former President Morsi,” a State Department spokesperson wrote by email. “We are aware of the concerns regarding his death, and refer you to the Government of Egypt for further details regarding the investigation.”
That’s a postmortem that is likely to be as reliable as Saudi Arabia’s investigation into Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.