Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, collapsed and died on June 17th after addressing a state court during his trial for espionage charges. The ex-president and senior-figure of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood had been held in solitary confinement since his removal by a military-led coup d’etat in July 2013, and routinely denied access to medical care, family visits, and legal advice. It is quite likely that the real details as to what actually happened will never be known, given Egypt’s tight restrictions on media outlets, but Morsi’s death has already casted a long shadow over the country.
His passing embodies yet another grave milestone in the history of Egypt’s road to democratic transition. It symbolises the extent to which authoritarian rule has retaken hold of the country, and the current regime’s efforts to completely wipe out political space, human rights, and what little gains were made after the 2011 Arab Uprisings. His death after years of imprisonment is also representative of the inhumane conditions typical of the overcrowded Egyptian prisons, and of the country’s crumbling socio-political context. Even though Egypt’s public prosecution says that there are no recent signs of recent injuries on Morsi’s body, therefore refuting claims of torture and neglect, Human Rights Watch openly condemned Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s regime by stating that “The government of Egypt today bears responsibility for his [Morsi] death”, which they also called “sad, but predictable”.
Some have gone as far as saying that Morsi’s death should be understood as a slow murder at the hands of the regime. While this is a bold statement, it nevertheless gives its significance even more pause. His regional legacy as Egypt’s first democratically elected president has died an unnatural death and, regardless of which side one subscribes to, this is a watershed moment for the country’s history. There is also some irony to the significance that such an event bears: when alive, the president was disliked by many both inside and outside the country. His election was shrouded by fears that he would install an Islamist government and support radical groups across the region, but he surprised many by maintaining diplomatic ties with Israel while also being a champion of the Palestinian cause, and by establishing a working relationship with US president Barak Obama. However, his failure to deal with domestic pressures and with the permanence of the deep state, along with other political mistakes, cost him the people’s support, leading to the outbreak of the popular protests that paved the way for al Sisi’s seizing of power.
Nevertheless, Morsi’s legacy holds a great amount of symbolism. Not only he was Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, but was also the first one without any ties to the country’s armed forces. He was also the first Islamist to ever hold such a role, and he made international news when, during his appointment speech, he unbuttoned his suit jacket to reveal that he was not wearing a bulletproof vest to represent his commitment to the people. For many Egyptians, his election symbolised a definite break with the country’s long history of authoritarian rule, especially at the very beginning of his presidency. Yet, over 8 years after the 2011 Uprisings, the country seems to have gone back to square one, being in the midst of the worst human rights crisis of his history so far.
Most of all, his death deals a hard blow to the already persecuted Muslim Brotherhood. Most of its followers have either been imprisoned or now live in exile following from the aftermath of the 2013 coup d’etat and of the August 2013 Raba’s and Nahda massacres, during which state forces openly killed almost 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters during peaceful sit-ins. Al Sisi has made no secret of his personal war against the Islamist organization, now designated as a terrorist group in Egypt, and international powers have largely remained silent about the brutal persecution of its members. Last night, an official statement from the organization remembered the ex-president as a martyr, and called for Egyptians both at home and abroad to gather en masse to protest and honour his death. Moreover, the premature death of one of its senior leaders is likely to further aggravate the already challenging circumstances that the Muslim Brotherhood finds itself in.
On this note, the international silence surrounding the news of Morsi’s death reveals just how successful al Sisi’s campaign against the Islamists has been. His efforts to get the Muslim Brotherhood proscribed as an international terrorist organization have even reached the US, where Donald Trump is pushing for its designation as such. The spreading of such attitudes largely explains the lack of international condemnations of the suspicious circumstances surrounding Morsi’s death. Among the notable silence of countries like the US, France, the UK and others that regularly trade with Egypt and support the military regime, there have been only a few voices of dissent. Open condemnations towards the Egyptian government have come out of Qatar and Turkey, rather unsurprisingly, as both countries host a significant number of Muslim Brotherhood members in exile. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called Morsi a “martyr” and stated: “History will never forget those tyrants who led to his death by putting him in jail and threatening him with execution”. Domestically, even though Morsi’s death is barely being reported, a large portion of the reactions on social media acknowledge his flaws as a politician but call for his death to be the last straw for the country’s increasingly autocratic regime. So disliked while alive, the ex-president is now being elevated as an example of Egypt’s utter lack of freedoms and respect for human rights.
There is one last, small but striking detail about this whole ordeal: news coverage in Egypt has so far barely reported on Morsi’s death and failed to mention that he was the former president when doing so. So has every statement from Egypt’s public prosecution so far. His story did not even make it to the first page of Egyptian newspapers outlets, and there are now reports of his family being forced to hurriedly bury him without a funeral to prevent international investigations from taking place. While it is too early to speculate on what the consequence of Morsi’s death will be, a looming question is whether or not this will be yet another watershed moment to be erased from Egyptian history.
The views, opinions, and thoughts expressed in the text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of ISPI