Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, figurehead of the Muslim Brotherhood, died suddenly on June 17, unleashing a wave of speculations in western media about what caused his death and what possible consequences would ensue.
The Brotherhood, it was said by some, would seize the opportunity to renew its attacks on the regime of President Sisi. Others wondered why “Egypt’s first democratically elected president” was not awarded a fitting funeral. Muslim Brothers had called for massive attendance to the event; they said that lack of proper medical care during the six years Morsi had spent in jail had hastened his demise and demanded an international inquest.
It was hinted that the government had slowly poisoned the prisoner. Conspiracy theories even suggested that he had died on the eve of the opening of the African football cup, to ensure that the people’s attention would be safely diverted. In the Middle East however, only the rulers of Turkey and Qatar eulogized Mohammed Morsi. Both are staunch supporters of the Brotherhood. President Erdogan speaking at a protest of the movement in Istanbul voiced his opinion that he had not died a natural death. In Israel, Northern Islamic movement leader Raed Salah eulogized him as well and condolence tents were set up in several villages.
Morsi had fallen in a matter of days from the highest office of the land to the dismal cells of the dreaded Tora prison; sentenced to 60 years for the mass killing of protesters as well as for spying for Qatar, he had barely escaped the death penalty when his sentence was overturned by the court of cassation. Not in good health to begin with, jail only made the matter worse. He fainted during a court appearance and was taken to hospital where doctors pronounced him dead of cardiac arrest.
Egyptian authorities did their best not to advertise the death. There was no official announcement and the former president was buried in the middle of the night in a cemetery east of Cairo where several high-ranking Muslim Brothers are interred. Only close family members and his lawyer were in attendance. His son Ahmed complained that he had been prevented from bringing him to rest in the family plot in the Sharqia province. The even barely rated the briefest of notice – 42 words altogether – buried in the back pages of Egyptian dailies with one notable exception, independent daily El Masry al Yom made the death of the former president front page news.
In all likelihood Egyptian authorities had feared that the Muslim Brothers and their followers would foment riots and had decided to limit media reports to a minimum and bury Morsi quickly so as not to give them time to get organized. However, there was little danger of that happening. The movement has been hit hard by the Sisi regime.
THE WAVE of protests which followed the ouster of president Morsi in July 2013 was repressed with extreme brutality; hundreds were killed and many more wounded. The Brotherhood was branded a terror organization, its institutions dismantled, and their assets seized. Its leaders – including the Supreme Guide Badi’e and Morsi himself – were arrested and subjected to lengthy trials which are still ongoing.
The few who managed to escape sought refuge in Turkey or Qatar, the only countries in the Middle East sympathetic to the movement. Inside Egypt there is a growing rift between the old guard stubbornly sticking to its principles and younger followers calling for more openness and less of the secrecy which characterized the workings of the Brotherhood. Extremists from both sides set up a new forum, Hism, meaning decision and carried out terror operations.
It was left to Amr Moussa, the former minister for Foreign Affairs and secretary general of the Arab League to sum up what many Egyptians think of their former president : the man was not, he said, the leaders of all the Egyptians and history will judge his regime harshly.
When Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign in February 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring, the only organized force in the country was the Muslim Brotherhood. The generals who had taken over were ready to let it assume power, believing that it would ensure stability.
The Freedom and Justice party established by the movement ahead of the parliamentary elections of December 2011 and January 2012 won 41% of the vote, becoming the largest formation. The Salafist party received 23%. Islamist parties dominated the parliament. Four months later Mohammed Morsi won the presidential election with barely 51.7 % in a low turnout. Nevertheless he was the first Muslim Brother in history to become president.
Many Egyptians are devout Muslim and believed that the Brotherhood, which had been repressed by previous governments, would develop the country with the traditional Egyptian brand of moderate piety. It did not happen. Instead of tackling the sorry state of the economy, the new parliament discussed imposing harsher corporal punishment as prescribed by the Sharia.
Stories emerged about corruption among its members. It was eventually dissolved by the supreme constitutional court for technical irregularities in the electoral process. By that time initial enthusiasm had waned. Still, there were hopes that the president would deal with the major issues born of the revolution: economy, society and personal security. But the Muslim Brothers, ecstatic with finding them themselves in power after 80 years of repression, could not wait to promote their ideological agenda and soon took over all government institutions.
Mohammed Morsi, a second-rate politician had no experience and lacked decisiveness and charisma. He was unable to rein in the Brotherhood. They pulled the strings and dictated his moves. Had the first, strong candidate, Khairat el-Shater, not been disqualified because his mother held American citizenship, the situation would have been different. The strong man of the movement, a successful and charismatic businessman, would have known how to maneuver. Today he too is in jail and history took a different turn.
WITHIN TWO months of the president’s inauguration demonstrations started, evolving into outright rebellion against the path taken. Suddenly there was a political front uniting all opposition parties, with even the army urging Morsi to change tack. He paid no heed, taking over the ministries of education, endowments and information, firing thousands of civil servants and appointed new ones from the ranks of the Brotherhood. The aim was to educate the people according to the teaching of Hassan el Bana, that is “returning to true Islam.” The new Education minister promptly declared that Bahai students could no longer attend state schools since theirs was not one of the three revealed faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. By that time no one believed the president would fulfill his pledge to deal within one hundred days with the five issues which plagued the country: personal security, traffic in the main cities, shortage of subsidized bread, shortage of petrol and of cooking gas, cleaning up major cities and garbage collection.
Nothing was being done and the economy was in free fall. Morsi then issued a presidential decree granting him control of the judiciary. He had taken over legislative prerogatives since parliament had been dissolved and in his capacity as president was head of the executive. Egypt was turning into a “constitutional dictatorship” with powers far exceeding those of Nasser and Mubarak. Worse was to come.
According to the draft of a new constitution he promoted, the country would become an Islamic state on the basis of the Sharia. Public outcry was immediate and demonstrations against the president and against the Brotherhood institutions swept the country. They were met with violence and people were killed. Non-Islamic parties united in a “national salvation front” calling for new elections. A new youth movement calling itself “revolt” launched a petition calling for the president’s resignation which garnered an unprecedented 23 million signatures.
Abdel Fattah al Sisi, appointed Minister of Defense by Morsi, who thought that he was a Brotherhood sympathizer and would ensure the allegiance of the army, vainly attempted to warn him that the army would not let the country sink into anarchy. By the time the president understood that Sisi, though a pious Muslim, was against the Brothers’ ideology, it was too late. Demonstrations intensified in June 2013 with millions taking to the streets on June 30, demanding his resignation and new elections. He refused and Egypt teetered on the brink of political and economic chaos. Al Sisi delivered an ultimatum, giving the president 48 hours to accept the will of the people. Morsi refused to believe and turned down the ultimatum. On July 3, the army took over and arrested him together with the leaders of the Brotherhood. The rest, as they say, is history.The writer is former Ambassador of Israel to Egypt and a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
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