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The slow-motion assassination of Mohamed Morsi

News analysis

In Egypt’s long history, there has been only a single leadership election which can reasonably be considered free and fair. That election, precipitated by the Arab Spring and the million-person marches which accompanied it, took place in May 2012.

The election was won by a man called Mohamed Morsi, a veteran opposition figure who had previously spent time in jail as a political prisoner. He represented the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which was affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, the moderate Islamist group which has long terrified Egypt’s secular dictators.

But Morsi did not spend much time in office. Just a year after he was inaugurated, he was ousted in a military coup led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who installed himself as president and remains in the position today. Sisi’s own election, in 2014, was controversial — his 97% winning margin underscored the question marks over the credibility of the vote.

While Sisi has turned Egypt into a de facto military dictatorship, undoing all the progress made during the Arab Spring, Morsi has spent the last six years in prison answering to a long roll call of charges ranging from the serious to the absurd (at one point, he was even accused of stealing poultry and cattle). Thousands of other Muslim Brotherhood members and Morsi supporters have also been detained.

Morsi was often kept in solitary confinement, while struggling with both diabetes and high blood pressure. Both his supporters and rights groups have repeatedly warned that these inhumane conditions would eventually kill him. They were right.

On Sunday, following yet another court appearance, Morsi collapsed inside the glass cage in which prisoners at court are kept. His fellow inmates cried out for help, but by the time Morsi was taken to hospital, he was already dead. He was 67 years old.

Morsi’s supporters are under no illusions about what or who killed him.

His party, the (FJP), immediately described his death as an assassination, saying that it holds the “authorities of the coup” — meaning Sisi and his government — “fully responsible for the martyrising of Morsi”. The Muslim Brotherhood called it a “full-fledged murder”.

Ayman Nour, an exiled opposition leader, said that Morsi was a martyr who had been “deliberately killed slowly”. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan echoed this sentiment, saying that Morsi was “a martyr who lost his life while he fought for the cause he believed in”.

“History will never forget the tyrants who put him in prison, threatened him with death penalty and caused his martyrdom,” Erdogan added.

Rights groups have offered a similar assessment. His death “raises serious questions about his treatment in custody,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy director for the Middle East at Amnesty International, while Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Leah Whitson described it as a “predictable outcome of the government’s criminal negligence”. Bahey el-Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said Morsi was subjected to “slow death” over six years, adding that “a long queue of el-Sisi prisoners, and victims of medical negligence in death waiting rooms” faced similar fates, according to the Middle East Eye.

Ironically, however, there is a chance that in death Morsi will prove more of a threat to Sisi’s regime than he did while alive. Martyrs are always a potent political symbol, and there may be a backlash. As Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported: “It is likely that the regime in Cairo will prepare for possible mass demonstrations by boosting the internal and military security forces in the main cities, primarily Cairo and Alexandria. The moment of truth will be Friday, when there will be prayers in thousands of mosques, many of which are still identified with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Not that the regime will be too worried. If the last six years has taught us anything, it is that people power is no match for Egypt’s authoritarian state, which even now is doing its level best to bury Morsi’s legacy.

“A small, striking, but not really surprising detail about Morsi’s death: Arabic coverage in Egypt doesn’t mention that he was a former president,” observed the Economist’s Gregg Carstrom. “Nor does an official statement from Egypt’s public prosecutor. And it’s not the top story on Egyptian newspaper websites.”

In the absence of official acknowledgment, it falls to the rest of the world to remember why Morsi was such a significant figure in Egyptian history. Rest in peace, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically-elected president.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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