Mohamed Morsi embodied the Egyptian establishment's worst fears: a democratic path for the country. He could not be openly executed and was instead ushered to a slow death.
“This was slow death.”
These are the words used to describe the last years of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first, only and perhaps last ever democratically elected president, by his exiled Muslim Brotherhood comrade Mohamed Sudan.
For the past six years, Morsi has lived a life unworthy of living. Like most political prisoners locked away in Egypt’s dungeons, in this case, the much-reviled Tora prison complex, nicknamed 'Scorpion', the conditions of his captivity were not even fit for an animal.
During one of his failed pleas in court for an assessment by doctors in 2015, Morsi, who suffered from severe diabetes, once famously claimed that to eat the food provided to him in prison would lead to ‘a major crime’, namely his death.
Morsi knew that the authorities, while perhaps not brazen enough to outright murder him, were content to make his life as painful and tortuous as possible.
There have been several independent accounts of the final painful years of Mohamed Morsi’s life, but the main focus ought to be on why the president was forced to endure this persecution.
That question will forever be perhaps the primary component of any biography or retrospective understanding of the life and death of Mohamed Morsi.
Ironically, following the overthrow of the Mubarak regime and the emergence of democracy, it was never supposed to be Morsi who ran for president for the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Brotherhood’s political wing.
The chosen one was the charismatic outspoken businessman and deputy supreme guide of the Brotherhood Khairat el Shatar (himself currently on death row in Egypt), but the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) barred him from running, and thus the practically unknown Morsi was selected by the FJP to run for the presidency.
Most pro-democracy Egyptians will never forget the moment when it was announced that Morsi had defeated the counter-revolutionary candidate Ahmed Shafik. The sheer volume of the roar that emanated from those gathered in Tahrir Square sends shivers down the spine.
But it was never about Morsi, the man – it was much more about what Morsi represented, which was the commitment from a majority of Egyptians to transition away from the tyranny that had ruled over and plundered the country for generations.
Even after Sisi’s coup against Morsi, pro-democracy protesters gathered at Rabaa and Nadha squares were keen to emphasise that their presence there wasn’t about devotion to Morsi, his party or the Muslim Brotherhood, but to the democracy that was being viciously dismantled before their eyes.
Though death came more swift for the protesters at Rabaa, the fact they faced the same ultimate fate as Morsi – to die at the hands of the regime for the ‘crime’ of supporting democracy over a tyrannical counterrevolution – is the most crucial point.
One ought to avoid fatalism in these matters, but it’s in retrospect that one can say that Morsi never really stood a chance as president. The impossibility of Morsi’s task became clear early on in his administration.
One event, which might seem petty, stands out as the perfect encapsulation of how Morsi was doomed to fail.
After footage emerged of Morsi declaring that ‘the Zionists’ had no right to any of historic Palestine, the feloul (Mubarak loyalists) reacted with hysteria, claiming that Morsi was an Islamic extremist who would rip up the Camp David accords and lead Egypt to war with Israel.
Roughly a week later, it emerged that Morsi had sent a letter to then Israeli president Shimon Peres expressing his commitment to peace between Egypt and Israel, prompting the same feloul, joined this time by some nominally pro-democracy liberals, to claim that Morsi was a Zionist.
According to his enemies, Morsi was simultaneously an Islamist who wanted war with nuclear-armed Israel and a Zionist.
This summed up the solitary year of Morsi’s democratic rule – a year defined by the ceaseless campaigning, both by overt means and by way of subterfuge, of the ruling elites to pave the way for a coup.
There was an effort to intimately tie the image of Morsi, and thus democracy, to economic and social chaos – to claim that Morsi was not a democrat, but a dangerous 'Islamist' hellbent on creating an Iranian-style Islamic Republic in Egypt.
Even as I write this, I notice on the BBC a commentator conceding that while Morsi briefly represented ‘change’ in Egypt, his great undoing was his ‘Islamism’ and his will to put the interests of the Brotherhood before the interests of Egypt.
Upending the status quo is a death sentence
While I’m not interested in hagiographies of Morsi, and I certainly didn’t support many if not most of particularly the social aspect of his politics or his reluctance to get rid of pre-existing laws against ‘insulting the presidency’, the fact is that Morsi’s ‘undoing’ was precisely because he was committed to democratic transition.
Far from trying to establish patronage to the Muslim Brotherhood, only 8 out of 36 cabinet ministers under Morsi’s presidency were members of the FJP. The vast majority of cabinet ministers, including the prime minister Hisham Qandil, were independent technocrats.
The Morsi government bore the hallmarks of a transitional reformist one designed to steer Egypt through turbulent times and further embed democracy.
Right up until the very moment that Sisi undertook a coup, Morsi could’ve been removed from office via a general election. Even if one believed Morsi to be inadequate or dangerous or politically inept, he never put himself above democracy.
Though even liberal critics cite his infamous constitutional declaration of November 2012 as ‘power grabs’, the reality is that he was only giving himself such powers to counteract the anti-democratic activities of SCAF and the Supreme Constitutional Court, who were committed to undermining him at every turn and threatening to dissolve Egypt’s parliament.
When Morsi tried to devolve economic power back to Egyptians and away from Mubarak-era kleptocrats and foreign corporations, he was accused of trying to destroy the economy.
When, in an act of solidarity with the revolution in Syria, Morsi cut all ties with Assad’s genocidal regime and supported a no-fly zone to protect civilians, he was depicted again as an 'Islamist extremist' who was committing Egypt to ‘jihad’.
Similarly, Morsi defied decades of Egypt-Israel relations by refusing to blame Hamas for Israel’s massacre in Gaza during ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’, with members of his government visiting the strip during a ceasefire in an act of solidarity.
All of these things were the final nails in the coffin of Egyptian democracy.
Morsi wasn’t perfect, and he wasn’t a radical. He had neither the will nor the means to solve all that ails Egypt, but in all the right ways, he represented emerging democracy against ingrained tyranny.
Morsi was an imperfect and uncharismatic antithesis of both Mubarak and Sisi.
Sisi could not openly execute Morsi due to the potential for civil unrest, but he was also uncomfortable with a powerful living reminder of Egypt’s alternate democratic path. The result was the slow death of Mohamed Morsi.
Nelson Mandela said, "that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails."
Hopefully, Egyptians begin to wonder why this man, who the regime slandered with absurd charges, was killed in this way.
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