Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was quietly buried on Tuesday, a day after he died in a Cairo court room. He was facing yet another trial after several convictions following his overthrow in July 2013. Morsi’s death has been condemned in Qatar and Turkey while condolences were sent from Iran. Other countries in the region largely ignored the death. In this respect, Morsi in death reflects the larger chasm in the Middle East.
Born in 1951, Morsi received his undergraduate degree in engineering. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood movement later in life. The Brotherhood had been founded in Egypt in 1928 and was banned in 1954 during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s reign. After his army service in 1975, Morsi went to the US where he received a PhD from the University of Southern California. He returned to Egypt and was elected to parliament in 2000. In this trajectory he joins other members of Islamist regimes such as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif who also studied in the US in the 1980s.
In 2007, he authored a paper for the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council arguing that neither women nor Coptic Christians should serve as president of Egypt, and that a council of Islamic scholars should guide parliament on making laws. After the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in the 2011 Arab Spring protests, Morsi ran for president. He won 51% of the vote in the 2012 election. His brief tenure was marked by instability, protests and accusations that the Brotherhood was going to turn Egypt into an Islamic theocracy. Protests in 2013 led the military, under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to give the politicians an ultimatum.
Egypt stood at a crossroads. Millions came out to protest against Morsi in late June. They pointed green lasers into the sky. The military flew helicopters with Egyptian flags over the crowds, showing it was with the protesters. Morsi would go.
July 2013 was a complex summer. In August 2013 the UK parliament would vote against military action in Syria, ending US President Barack Obama’s push for airstrikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime in response to chemical weapons attacks. The Syrian civil war was reaching a crises. At the beginning of the year around 60,000 had already been killed. But the end of the year the number would likely double. And 2013 was the year the foreign journalists mostly stopped going to parts of Syria, after dozens were kidnapped and some later beheaded by ISIS. The chaos in the region and weakening state system, helped fuel ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
It’s surprising to remember that time of 2012 to 2013 when so much changed in the Middle East. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, and then Muammar Gaddafi in Libya were overthrown. Gaddafi was beaten to death in October 2011. Libya fell into chaos and remains trapped in a civil conflict. In Bahrain protesters were pushed aside by intervention from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
By contrast, Egypt was a success story. US President Barack Obama had gone to Cairo in 2009 to write a new chapter on US relations with the Arab and Muslim world. He told Egyptians the US was not involved in pushing democracy on the region through imposing US values. He also warned that some advocate for democracy only when they’re not in power.
“Elections alone do not make true democracy,” Obama presciently said. Egyptians went to the polls in 2011 and 2012, and the Brotherhood-linked Freedom and Justice party did well. In total, parties connected to Islamist or political Islamist agendas dominated the new parliament, whereas older nationalist and secular parties got only several million votes.
Morsi was sworn in on June 30, 2012. He spent one year in power.
Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world. Cairo alone has more people than many countries in the region. Egypt is a center of culture and cinema, so it was to be expected that from the elections in 2012 that Egypt’s new rising Brotherhood leadership might influence the region. This is what Qatar, Turkey and Hamas expected, all of whom either supported Morsi or had links to the Brotherhood. For these supporters the 2013 overthrow was a coup.
But Morsi’s problems were domestic, including an insurgency in Sinai and Hamas-Israel tensions. Weapons were flowing from Libya and other countries into Gaza. Morsi turned to the Arab League in September 2012 where he slammed Syrian President al-Assad. “I tell the Syrian regime that there is still a chance to halt the bloodshed. Don’t listen to the voices that tempt you to stay because you will not be there for much longer.” When conflict broke out between Israel and Hamas, Morsi helped broker a ceasefire in November.
After his overthrow, Morsi was kept largely in solitary confinement according to human rights groups. Today the interpretations of his rule are opposites across the region. At Al-Jazeera in Qatar, he is remembered fondly, as Egypt’s first democratically elected president. This is ironic since Qatar does not have democracy. It is also ironic in other countries where democracy is being eroded, that Morsi is remembered as almost liberal. He was not a liberal, he was a far-right conservative who won an election, part of a wave of political Islamic parties that challenged the status quo, from Hamas to the AK Party in Turkey to Ennahda in Tunisia. The era of the rise of these parties started in 2000. Morsi rode that wave until it crashed on him. He had been in prison before, mentioned in US diplomatic cables in 2006 and 2007.
The US had hopes for his administration. These were perhaps harmed by the riots on September 11, 2012 – where protesters attacked the US embassy in Cairo over claims that a “blasphemous” video had been shown on Youtube. Those same riots in Benghazi led to the murder of the US ambassador in Libya. They were actually a planned attack.
After being ousted Morsi would be charged with a litany of crimes and the Brotherhood outlawed as a terrorist group. Morsi would be accused of treason and giving away state secrets. He was sentenced to decades in prison in 2015. When he finally did die, apparently of a heart attack, he was buried in the most quiet and modest way. No major protests or procession. He had already been purposely forgotten in Egypt, his name removed from photos of presidents in places, newspapers not bothering to cover his death. Unsurprisingly his supporters who speak more freely abroad say he was murdered. In Turkey, where the leading AK Party was sympathetic to Morsi, Anadolu news media calls him a man of courage. Al-Jazeera highlights his life with four stories on the home page and emphasizes that Egypt was “slammed” by Human Rights Watch.
Iran, which was on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict as Morsi and his friends among the Syrian rebels, also sent condolences. “While respecting the viewpoints of the great and brave Egyptian nation,” Iran said it remembered Morsi’s family and supporters. In the UAE, Morsi is remembered for a “plethora of mistakes that served to antagonize those who doubted the ability of his presidency from day one.”
Nothing in the Middle East is simple and clear. Morsi’s death shows the great division between the current Egyptian government and its allies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while it also showcases the alliance of Turkey, Qatar, and their supporters among Hamas and the Syrian rebels.
In Syria there was no mention of Morsi on state media. It is important to remember that it was the Syrian civil war, the Libyan conflict, as well as insurgency in Sinai, that encouraged those who wanted a return to more authoritarian order in Egypt in 2013. When I was in Egypt in 2016, those who went out to protest called it a second revolution. They said “we will not be made to bathe in our blood,” asserting that Egypt was sinking into civil conflict in 2013, the military had to step in to stop the chaos. Morsi said he would sacrifice his own blood to maintain the legitimacy of his government. In the end the military chose for him.
Overshadowed by the instability in Libya and Syria and mismanagement of the Sinai, the army removed him and began a clamp down on the protests that had been common in Egypt from 2011 to 2013. Across the region the same clamp down happened. It is what motivated the military in Sudan in recent weeks. Morsi’s shadow is symbolic of this divide.
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