How Mohamed Morsi ended up on death row

Ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is seen behind bars during his trial at a court in Cairo. (Reuters)

Ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is seen behind bars during his trial at a court in Cairo. (Reuters)

It was June 29 2013, the day before much-hyped demonstrations that were expected to give the Egyptian military the cover they needed to sweep Morsi from power. But asked whether he trusted the army, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected president, replied with one word: “Gedan.” Absolutely. “They’re busy now,” he later added, “with the affairs of the army itself.”

But evidently not busy enough – this was Morsi’s last interview as president . Two days on, army chief Abdel Fatah el-Sisi gave him an ultimatum to leave office. And two days after that, on July 3 , Sisi ordered his arrest. Morsi has spent the past 23 months in jail, on trial in an ever-increasing number of cases ranging from espionage to incitement, as his successors in power seek to guarantee that he never tastes freedom again. 

Sisi, by contrast, became president in Morsi’s place, overseeing a crackdown on most forms of opposition with tens of thousands of dissidents detained, and thousands killed . The biggest proportion of them have been supporters of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood – a provocation that led the group last week to make what amounted to a call for an armed insurgency.”

That process may reach its apogee on Tuesday. Given a preliminary death sentence in the second of his four trials last month , Morsi will find out whether it has been upheld. The outcome is expected to be appealed in a process that will take years. Whether Egypt’s regime would follow through with such a provocative act also remains to be seen.

But should the conviction eventually stand, Morsi would become the world’s first ex-president to be executed since Saddam Hussein in 2006. It is a shocking fate for a man who less than three years ago became the first Egyptian president to reach office through free elections.

How he reached this nadir depends on who you ask. Supporters say he was doomed from the start. They argue that when Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011 , his regime remained largely intact, and was able to undermine Mubarak’s elected successor from the moment of his election.

“The struggle was inevitable,” Brotherhood official, Ahmed el-Khoufi, told me last week. Khoufi is one of more than 100 men given a provisional death sentence alongside Morsi, accused of collaborating with Hamas to escape from jail during the 2011 uprising. He’s now on the run. He adds, “It was inevitable that there would be a clash between [the supporters of] a revolution that called for freedom, social justice and human dignity, and a regime that ruled Egypt for decades.”

‘A different narrative’
But Morsi’s initial bedfellows in that revolution, the leftists, liberals and moderates who would later join Mubarak’s allies to call for Morsi’s exit, have a different narrative. They argue that instead of maintaining a working relationship with other revolutionary factions, he quickly alienated them, and acted only in the interest of the Brotherhood. 

“The Brotherhood had a degree of political stupidity,” says Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood big beast who ran against Morsi in 2011, and was once considered the election’s frontrunner. “They thought they could protect themselves from the conspiracy of the Mubarak regime through [just] their own organisation. They were arrogant. But it’s impossible in the aftermath of any revolution to be protected by anyone other than the owners of that revolution: the people.”

In June 2012, on the day of his election, Morsi seemed to understand the need to maintain appearances. In a symbolic, if slightly awkward, gesture, he stood before crowds in Tahrir Square, the crucible of the 2011 uprising, and unbuttoned his jacket . The point was to show that he wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest – and that as a representative of the people, he was not afraid of them.

But he would need more than gestures to maintain unity. He won the election, but only just. And many who got him over the line in the run-off had voted not from conviction – but because they saw him as marginally more preferable to his opponent in the final round: Mubarak’s last prime minister. 

But rather than keeping everyone onside, Morsi was seen as increasingly divisive, open only to Islamist ideas, and loyal only to the Brotherhood. In October, at celebrations to mark one of the Egyptian army’s most mythical victories, he invited a man convicted of assassinating his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. It was a highly provocative gesture that did nothing to assuage fears that Morsi’s election marked the gateway to a more extremist Egypt.

Ruling by decree
But the event that may have sealed his fate came a month later, in November 2012. Seeking to fast-track a controversial, Islamist-slanted constitution, Morsi awarded himself total executive control , allowing himself to bypass judicial procedures to ensure the text was put to a public vote without further debate. The decision led to deadly street fights between Brotherhood supporters and leftist and liberals outside the presidential palace. Within 10 days, he revoked his decision. But for those who had been on the fence, it was a point of no return. Even Morsi, in his final interview, admitted that it was a mistake: “It was not meant to be, but it contributed some kind of misconception in society.”

Mohamed Aboul Ghar, the leader of Egypt’s social democratic party, and one of the leading liberal voices to emerge after 2011, says it was the moment he realised Morsi wouldn’t last. The day before Morsi decided to rule by decree, Aboul Ghar had been locked in talks for five hours with the president and other political leaders. The aim was to decide what to do about the constitution, whose drafters had reached an impasse.

The talks were promising. Both sides made compromises, and Morsi seemed very happy, remembers Aboul Ghar. “He said: I think we’ve [taken] a very important step, and we are going to save the constitution, we’re going to find a compromise, and sort out this big problem in Egypt.’”

By Aboul Ghar’s account, Morsi promised to meet again with his opponents the next day, to finalise their deal. But that never happened. Instead, says Aboul Ghar, “on the next day there was this emergency decree. This clearly [showed] to me that it is not him who decides anything. He made these suggestions [to his superiors in the Muslim Brotherhood], and he was told: ‘Shut up. You make this decree.’ Since then, we were invited [to meet Morsi] many times, and we all refused to meet him.”

The Brotherhood portray it differently. They saw the decision to ram through the Constitution as their only option, and a reasonable response to months of intransigence from both the deep state, and from secular-leaning politicians such as Aboul Ghar. At each attempt to hasten Egypt’s democratic transition and establish consensus, they claim they were respectively thwarted by hostile institutions, and immature liberal politicians who refused to work with Morsi in cabinet.

“This is the situation,” Morsi told me, when asked why he hadn’t appointed more ministers from other political backgrounds. “We offer them [positions], and they refuse.” In a move that contributed to the Brotherhood’s bunker mentality, the supreme court dissolved the Brotherhood-led lower house of parliament in the days before Morsi’s election.

It was a decision that forced Morsi to govern without his parliamentary power base – a situation he felt the deep state had engineered to undermine his ability to get anything done. Then in the days before the constitutional debacle, he feared that something similar was about to happen: another intervention from the supreme court that would scrap the committee tasked with drafting the constitution, and bring the whole transition back to square one. Without a constitution, the Brotherhood’s thinking went, there could be no new parliament, and without a parliament, Egypt would be stuck in transitional limbo.

But whatever the intention, his decision smacked of dictatorship, and meant that Egypt’s divisions would only deepen as Morsi’s tenure continued. His opponents felt there was little point engaging with him. And Morsi saw little point in trying – the fact that the Brotherhood had been on the winning side in every post-revolutionary election gave them an erroneous sense of their own invincibility. But by late May, they should have been worried. By this point a significant proportion of the population had started to mobilise against them.

Early elections
Crucially, these people didn’t just include the usual suspects – such as Aboul Ghar. A new campaign group, Tamarod, caught the imagination , and encouraged millions of Egyptians, many of whom had voted for Morsi, to sign a petition calling for early elections. Sensing their moment, the business elite, which controlled the media, launched a full-on decapitation strategy. As June wore on, their newspapers and TV cast Morsi and the Brotherhood as terrorists, and holding them solely responsible for Egypt’s deep-rooted economic problems and fuel shortages. 

Aboul Fotouh, Morsi’s former ally, supported calls for early elections, and for anti-Morsi protests. But he also argues that these protests were egged on by a campaign to “smear the president, to smear the revolution, and to make people feel that revolution didn’t bring any stability or any security.”

Which came first may never be established, but amid an increasingly hysterical national conversation, the military also began to move behind the scenes. Leaked recordings of conversations between top generals suggest that the army, supported by the Gulf monarchies, may have helped to fund Tamarod, the grass-roots anti-Morsi campaign. And on 23 June, the army’s leadership summoned several western ambassadors, and hinted that they were mulling an intervention.

But Morsi’s arrest, let alone his execution, was still by no means a certainty. On 29 June, our interview was delayed while Morsi negotiated with Sisi in the next-door room. The die may have been cast, but it had not yet come to a rest. Even after 30 June, when millions turned out to oppose him , negotiations continued. Behind the scenes, some of Morsi’s opponents say that while they were adamant that the president should step down, they were also open to the Brotherhood’s continued political involvement in some form. Even on 3 July, one source said that Saad el-Katatny, the Brotherhood’s parliamentary leader, was offered the chance to attend a televised meeting about the decision to hold new elections, a symbolic gesture to show that the Brotherhood would not be completely sidelined.

But as ever, the Brotherhood did not compromise. Throughout this final fortnight, people such as Aboul Ghar feared that Morsi might make some gesture of reconciliation, and so avert the worst of public anger. “I thought that Morsi would be a little bit wiser, [that he’d] do something positive,” says Aboul Ghar. “But as it’s very clear to me, Morsi didn’t have any power. Absolutely nothing. It was the Maktab Irshad [the Brotherhood’s management board] who had full power … They didn’t see that their supporters [were] not supporting them any more. They didn’t see any of these things.”

On July 2, Morsi’s allies say he did give in on some counts – but it was too late. On July 3, he was arrested along with his closest advisers. And so began the still-unfinished crackdown on all Brotherhood activity.

‘No linear truth’
The Brotherhood argue that what happened next – the massacres, the mass-arrests, Morsi’s death sentence – was scripted from the beginning, and that they were given no chance to beat a dignified retreat. They point out that within days, on July 8, the army and police had already gunned down more than 50 pro-Morsi protesters in a massacre outside the Republican Guards’ club in east Cairo. Ahmed el-Khoufi, the Brotherhood official also awaiting confirmation of a death sentence on Tuesday, says: “Since the start of that first massacre outside the Republican Guards, it was clear that this path was a piece of theatre that still hasn’t finished.”

But as ever in Egypt, there is no single, linear truth. It was the army who toppled Morsi, and whose leaders have since tried to stamp out dissent – Islamist and non-Islamist alike. But in the weeks following Morsi’s ouster, the moderates who provided the smokescreen for the army’s return to political life still carried some influence. The head of the supreme court was made acting president. 

Egypt’s leading liberal, Mohamed ElBaradei, was appointed vice-president, and was allowed to pick the prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, an economics professor from Aboul Ghar’s social democratic party. For much of July, Baradei and a team from the EU led negotiations with the Brotherhood, attempting to get them to quit their huge protest camp at Rabaa al-Adawiya in east Cairo before the hardliners dismantled it by force.

The August massacre at Rabaa, which saw soldiers shoot dead over 800 pro-Morsi protesters , was initially not a forgone conclusion. Nor was Morsi’s prolonged incarceration. In mid-July, a general claimed to me that his fate had not yet been decided, and that he might even be released once the country calmed down. But the longer the Brotherhood stayed in the streets, and the harsher their rhetoric became, the more likely a full-on crackdown seemed. 

Their intransigence became embarrassing for the new government, and gave more ammunition to those within it who wanted a harder-line solution.The then prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, argued to me last year: “There was an increasing anger among the people: how come you want us to believe that you bring us peace and security if there is a direct insult to you in the street, defying you, and you are doing nothing?”

At this point, Sisi was not yet officially heading the country – but Beblawi suggested he had an increasing say in how things were run. “General Sisi and the army played a major role in 30 June,” said Beblawi. 

“There is no doubt about this. And his popularity at that time was very high. It still is. Also he was the head of the army, and the army was about the most organised and solid organisation [in Egypt]. So these are facts of life. If I go to sports, and you have next to you the best football player, definitely he has more supporters than I do. If I go with a singer, he definitely will have supporters. So these are facts.” 

Shifting the balance of power
Perhaps the defining post-Morsi moment, and the one that would define Morsi’s fate, came on June 24. That was the day Sisi made a speech that shifted the balance of power in favour of the hardliners. Since the Brotherhood had snubbed ElBaradei’s appeals for compromise and refused to leave the streets, Sisi now asked the Brotherhood’s opponents to return to Tahrir Square in their millions, to give him a mandate to tackle terrorism. It was a thinly veiled attempt to circumvent peaceniks such as ElBaradei, and win support for the eradication of the Brotherhood, and his own political ambitions.

“I was shocked,” remembers Khaled Dawoud, then the spokesman for ElBaradei’s political coalition. “I remember very well waking up late, because it was Ramadan, and seeing [Sisi] on the TV in his full military uniform and these super-dark sunglasses, and [hearing] this very hardline speech, and thinking: ‘What’s this? Why are you asking for a mandate? You are only the defence minister.’”

But two days later, many Egyptians appeared to have fewer qualms: millions turned out to give Sisi his mandate. On the same day, prosecutors brought the first formal allegations against Morsi, accusing him of escaping from prison in 2011 – an allegation that prosecutors seemed happy to overlook when he ran for president, but which now may have him executed. Later that night, police shot dead more than 80 Brotherhood protesters . And just under three weeks later, soldiers moved on the camp at Rabaa, killing over 800 in the worst state-led massacre since at least Tiananmen Square.

Any hopes that Morsi might leave prison ended there, and the confidence he expressed in the army on 29 June seemed more misplaced than ever. Still, he got one thing right that Saturday, as he sat on a golden-rimmed armchair at Cairo’s Qubba place.

“It has been a very difficult year,” he said. “And I think the coming years will also be very difficult.”  – © Guardian News & Media 2015



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