Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was a reluctant leader from humble beginnings, his stratospheric rise and fall from power underlines the tragic state of Egypt today.
At the age of 67, Mohammed Morsi, the fifth president of Egypt, died in a Cairo courtroom.
Many politicians and policymakers in the West disliked Morsi, considering him an ‘Islamist’ dictator in the making.
However, for millions of Arabs and the wider Muslim world, Morsi was seen as Egypt’s first elected leader, who was overthrown in a coup by the military on July 3, 2013, to which the West mostly turned a blind eye.
While Morsi faced daily and constant interference and public statements from Western leaders who hawkishly analysed his every move, General Abdel Fattah el Sisi, who overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president, has fared much better.
Sisi became president in June 2014 and unlike his deposed predecessor has been met with much stronger backing from Egypt’s western allies, than was ever afforded to Egypt’s first democratically elected leader.
This was most evident when European leaders attended a summit in Egypt this February as the Sisi regime carried out the political executions of opponents.
Born in 1951, in a village north of Cairo to a conservative farming family, Morsi was the eldest of five brothers. His humble beginnings held little clue of what lay in store for him.
Morsi would recall later how his father would take him to school on a donkey, which paid-off in the long run as he went on to excel at school and attend engineering faculty of Cairo University, which eventually led him to the University of California to pursue a PhD.
While at Cairo University, Morsi was shaped by the Islamic political milieu, which also influenced his world view. Egypt in the 1960s and 1970s was in a state of flux with unsuccessful wars against Israel and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Pan-Arabism showing signs of weakness as new conservative ideas started coming to the fore.
Morsi’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, a social, political and an Islamically faith-based movement, stretches back decades.
After coming back from the US, working for NASA and as an accomplished engineer in precision metal surfaces, Morsi took a post at Zagazig University, becoming head of the department.
Morsi’s first foray into politics was in 2000 when he ran for the Egyptian parliament as an independent. The Muslim Brotherhood was banned under Hosni Mubarak’s regime and could not set up a party or field candidates as a group.
His political experience in parliament would later help him to run for national politics.
The future democratically elected president of Egypt was also part of the Guidance Office of the Muslim Brotherhood, which steered the movement. Known for his loyalty, Morsi’s rise within the Muslim Brotherhood made him a trustworthy and reliable person when the Arab Spring happened.
As protests swept the Mubarak regime, which had clung to power for 30 years, the Muslim Brotherhood was initially cautious. The movement and its members had experienced brutal crackdowns before - the movement’s cautiousness stemmed from a bitter past.
The young people of the movement, who had not lived through such violence in the past, were less cautious, joining the protests and later pulling the Muslim Brotherhood leadership to the side the people.
The military regime that took over after Mubarak quickly set about arresting the leadership of the group.
On January 28 2011, the military regime, fearing the organisational prowess of the Muslim Brotherhood, arrested 24 of its leaders, only for them to break out of the jail two days later. It is primarily this episode that would be used against Morsi.
The unlikely leader
As the Arab Spring unfolded, the Muslim Brotherhood, with its strong grassroots networks, organisational capacity and its perceived honesty, meant that it was quickly able to capitalise on the new more open political environment in Egypt.
Morsi quickly became one of the founders of the Freedom and Justice Party, which was closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
When Egypt had its first democratic elections between November 2011 and January 2012, the Freedom and Justice Party, headed by Morsi, came out as the largest party, with 37 percent of the votes.
Soon after the parliamentary elections, with the wind in their sails, the Muslim Brotherhood weighed whether it should run a presidential candidate.
The organisational leadership feared that if they didn’t run a candidate for president the old regime might take revenge for the MB’s strong showing in parliament and its support of protestors.
Others felt that having initially promised not to run anyone for president, the Muslim Brotherhood went back on their promise, something that inspired distrust among liberals and secularists.
Morsi, however, was not the first choice for president by the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat el Shater, a more charismatic leader in the Muslim Brotherhood and successful businessman, was the favourite.
However, Shater was banned by the military regime from running, and Morsi was the reluctant candidate in waiting. His modest demeanour was not enough, however, to mask what some felt was a lack of charisma and political vision.
He was mocked for not being the favourite.
Morsi ran against Ahmed Shafik, the regime candidate, and after a bruising election won with 51.7 percent of the vote.
In his short time in power, the opposition grew increasingly suspicious of him, and his political decisions garnered criticism.
Unable to exert control over crucial ministries, as well as sabotage from the Egyptian deep state, civil society protests, international criticism and a virulent anti-Morsi campaign by the Egyptian media, Morsi buckled.
Egypt was increasingly framed as a country on the brink of collapse, maybe even worse, and the Syrian civil war loomed large.
The Egyptian military watched as Morsi struggled to wield power. His attempt to reconcile himself with the Egyptian deep state didn’t help.
Morsi’s appointment of Mohamed Ibrahim Moustafa as Interior Minister and Abdel Fattah el Sisi as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, two people that would later topple him, seems to have been his greatest miscalculation.
Since Morsi was deposed in a brutal coup on July 3, 2013, his treatment at the hands of the Egyptian state can best be characterised as revenge.
In stark comparison to deposed former president Mubarak, who was able to enjoy stints under house arrest in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt's premier tourist destination, the Egyptian deep state had different plans for Morsi.
The man that had tried to turn the page on Egypt's dictators would be taught a lesson. He was placed in the notorious ‘Scorpion’ section of the Tora Prison, widely considered one of the worst prisons in Egypt.
Morsi’s death, more than anything, has allowed the world to focus, even briefly on what happened and what is happening in Egypt.
His death is ultimately a tragedy for his family. For Egypt, it’s a reminder of the coup and a new level of brutality that was unleashed on society.