Mohamed Morsi, who served as President of the Republic of Egypt for a year and four days, before being removed from office by a military coup, died in an Egyptian courtroom on Monday. It was June 17th—the seventh anniversary of the vote that put Morsi into the Presidency. The Cairo calendar is full of political anniversaries, some of which are laid out in concrete and stone: the October 6th Bridge, which commemorates the beginning of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War; the July 26th Road, named for the day when King Farouk abdicated, in 1952. But June 17th is not sanctified in political memory, and the Egyptian state media didn’t mention the coincidence of Morsi dying on this date. Nowadays, it’s hard to believe that seven years ago the country held the only free and fair Presidential election in its history, and that a Muslim Brother won, with 51.73 per cent of the vote.
From the beginning, Morsi was an unlikely candidate. He rose to prominence in the wake of the Arab Spring, when tens of thousands of protesters flooded Tahrir Square, demanding the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. On February 11, 2011—one of the dates that Egyptians remember—the government finally acceded, with the Vice-President announcing that Mubarak had resigned, after almost thirty years in power. Two days earlier, the Muslim Brotherhood had issued a statement of its own: a promise that the organization would not seek the Presidency.
It was significant that this was one of the Brothers’ first acts in the new era. The organization was founded in 1928, during a period of anti-colonialist anger and unrest, and initially some of its members engaged in assassinations and other acts of political violence. Brotherhood leaders eventually rejected such tactics, adopting the principle of nonviolence, but their reputation remained tainted by this early history. And the organization, which was often brutally repressed by the government, also had a pattern of members occasionally becoming radicalized and leaving for more extreme groups.
With this past in mind, the Brothers sought to reassure the public. On March 18, 2012, I met with Sobhi Saleh, a leader of the Brotherhood’s majority bloc in Egypt’s new parliament. I asked if they would field a candidate for the nation’s highest office. “Never,” Saleh said, adamantly. “We want to send a message to every party to make them realize that Islamists are not seeking to dominate the power.” The following week, as rumors swirled that the Brothers had changed their minds, Rashad el-Bayoumi, a member of the organization’s Guidance Bureau, denied that there had been a shift in policy. “We haven’t said that we will nominate somebody for President,” he told me. Five days later, the Brothers announced that they would field a candidate, after all.
Their initial choice, Khairat el-Shater, was disqualified on a technicality. After that, they put forward Morsi, whom the press immediately nicknamed al-stebn, “the spare tire,” because he was rolled out like an extra wheel. He was overweight, bespectacled, and bearded, and he never seemed comfortable as a politician. He received a Ph.D., in materials science, from the University of Southern California, and taught briefly at California State University, Northridge. But, reportedly, his time in the U.S. had left him disgusted by many American values, including the casual ways in which men and women interacted.
Like other Brotherhood leaders, Morsi praised the values of democracy and freedom to members of the foreign press, but, in front of other audiences, he had a history of more troubling statements. He referred to Israel’s citizens as “killers and vampires,” and he declared that neither a woman nor a non-Muslim should be allowed to serve as Egypt’s President. As an engineer, his specialty was precision metal surfaces, but he claimed that planes alone could not have brought down the World Trade Center on 9/11. “Something must have happened from the inside,” Morsi said. For anybody attuned to Egyptian conspiracy theories, Morsi’s coded comment pointed to an obvious culprit: the Jews.
His campaign rallies could be unsettling. “Don’t pay attention to the media, it’s a false media!” a speaker shouted, at a rally in Cairo, in May, 2012. Another person read a poem dedicated to journalists: “The press are maggots in the brain of truth!” That same month, in Ismailia, a city on the Suez Canal, I watched as Safwat Hegazy, a notoriously aggressive Salafi cleric, hyped up a crowd of thousands before Morsi spoke. “As for the fears that the Brothers want to take over the government—” Hegazy said, pausing for effect. “Yes, we do want everything! We want the parliament! We want the President! We want the cabinet and the ministries! We want everything to be Islamic! We want the drainage systems to be Islamic!”
The 2012 Presidential election was the first in Egyptian history to be free from corruption and outright manipulation, but it was hardly reassuring. During the final round of voting, Morsi’s opponent was Ahmed Shafik, a former commander of the Egyptian Air Force, who had been the last Prime Minister under Mubarak. For young Egyptians who had been inspired by the Arab Spring, this was the choice: a seventy-year-old party hack, who had described Mubarak as “a role model,” or an Islamist with a Ph.D. in materials science, who denied that two Boeing 767s could have toppled the World Trade Center.
Since the founding of the Republic of Egypt, in 1952, only six men have held the office of President, not counting those who served briefly on an interim basis. But this apparent stability is deceptive. Of the six, three were removed by coup and subsequently spent time in prison or under house arrest. Two of the men who served as President have now died in shockingly public ways, essentially on stage during events of political theatre.
On October 6, 1981, Cairo held a military parade to commemorate one of its sacred dates, the start of the Arab-Israeli War. During the parade, a group of soldiers who had been radicalized by al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya, a violent Islamist group that included many former Brothers, assassinated President Anwar Sadat. Eleven others who stood with Sadat on the reviewing stand also died.
For nearly four decades, this event has resonated throughout Egyptian politics. Sadat was succeeded by Mubarak, who had been wounded during the assassination, and who realized that the Army could not be fully trusted. In response, he built up the police as a bulwark of personal support. He granted cops increasing degrees of leeway, until they could essentially terrorize civilians without repercussion. It was largely in response to police abuses that the initial protesters gathered on Tahrir, in 2011.
Mubarak also cracked down on the Islamists. During his tenure, Morsi was imprisoned twice, a common fate for Brotherhood leaders. At the time of Morsi’s election, the organization’s Guidance Bureau consisted of eighteen men, fourteen of whom had spent time in jail. It was no surprise that even in a climate of unprecedented political openness the Brothers continued to behave like trauma victims. They remained paranoid and secretive, and they often seemed deceptive, as when they broke their promise about the Presidency. They never made an effort to reach out and gain new political allies.
A few months after Morsi was sworn into office, when the country was relatively quiet, I met with one of the men who had been convicted of plotting to kill Sadat. After the assassination, five men were executed, and another seventeen were sentenced to prison. One of the youngest was Salah Bayoumi, who had been only eighteen at the time of the attack. Bayoumi had fallen under the influence of radical Islamists at a Cairo mosque. He joined the Army, hoping to fight Israel in what he believed to be a jihad. But the Army assigned him to the music department, where he was taught to play the bagpipes. It was a frustrating fate for a conservative Islamist who was wary of the temptations of music. Supposedly, Bayoumi had supplied the firing pins for the weapons that shot Sadat, although he refused to confirm this to me. “I had a huge role,” he said, of the assassination. “But we cannot talk about the details.”
He was released after twenty-five years in prison. For long stretches, he had been held in solitary confinement, and he was beaten so badly that he was deaf in one ear. He had wary, furtive eyes, and he often declined to answer my questions, but he was open about his continued hatred of Sadat. In the minds of Bayoumi and his co-conspirators, Sadat deserved to die for agreeing to the Camp David Accords. “Everyone hated Sadat because after the war he sought help from the Jews,” Bayoumi said.
Since Bayoumi’s release, he had worked in a marble quarry in a settlement outside Cairo, called Sadat City. If Bayoumi recognized any irony in this situation, he didn’t mention it. He was the perfect example of how modern Egyptian politics, despite all the great names and authoritarian traditions, has had many moments when small people, and small acts, have helped change history. But changing history is not the same as escaping it, and, often, individuals—a young idealistic Islamist, a liberal protester on Tahrir—have turned out to be pawns of some larger force or trend. I asked Bayoumi whether the assassination of Sadat had accomplished any political goals, and his answer was curt. “No,” he said. “Mubarak just followed the same pattern. He did everything that Sadat did, but even worse.”
He told me that he had met Morsi in prison—Egyptian jails are famous meeting grounds for Islamists. Bayoumi liked Morsi, but he feared that enemies would find a way to overthrow the President. “I am personally convinced that the old regime is still here,” Bayoumi told me. “The revolution still hasn’t happened yet.”
In the end, Morsi was another small man. He was unprepared for his role and overwhelmed by its demands; he made missteps from the beginning. The country’s institutions were clearly wary of the Brotherhood, and perhaps they would have overthrown its government in any case. But the Brothers’ dysfunction and dishonesty, and the incompetence of their President, turned public opinion against them. The day before Morsi took office, he said that he would try to free Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who had been convicted of guiding a conspiracy after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. When it came to policy, Morsi’s efforts were equally ill-conceived: one evening, without any warning, he suddenly announced major tax increases on gasoline, electricity, cooking oil, cigarettes, and alcohol. There were immediate panic-runs on liquor stores and gas stations all around Cairo; then, on the same evening, Morsi abruptly cancelled the taxes. He chose to enact this policy change via a post on his Facebook page, at 2:13 A.M.
In November, 2012, Morsi issued a Presidential decree to temporarily give himself powers beyond the reach of any court or judge, in order to make sure that an Islamist-dominated committee could complete a new constitution. When peaceful protesters gathered around the Presidential palace, a number of Brothers and their supporters attacked the crowd violently, in what turned out to be the final straw for many Egyptians. Morsi hung on for another six months, but, at the end of his first year in office, millions of Egyptians gathered to protest his rule, and a coup seemed inevitable. On July 3, 2013, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who had been appointed as minister of defense by Morsi himself, led the military takeover.
Under Sisi, the crackdown on Islamists and other political opponents has been far more severe than anything that had happened during the days of Mubarak. On August 14, 2013, security forces in Cairo massacred as many as a thousand Morsi supporters, the vast majority of whom were unarmed. The country now has tens of thousands of political prisoners, and Morsi and other prominent Islamists have been marched regularly into courtrooms, where they’ve been tried on trumped-up charges.
I attended Morsi’s first day in court, on November 4, 2013. Journalists weren’t allowed to bring cell phones, cameras, or audio recorders, but I still recall the sound of the deposed President’s voice. He had refused to wear the traditional white garb of a prisoner, and he held his head high and repeatedly interrupted the proceedings. Over and over, he bellowed, “Ana rayis al-gomhoriyya! Ana rayis al-gomhoriyya!” (“I am the President of the Republic! I am the President of the Republic!”) He was contained in a metal cage, and Egyptian journalists taunted him by shouting through the bars, “E‘dam, e‘dam!” (“Death penalty, death penalty!”)
For Morsi’s second appearance in court, in January, 2014, the authorities had sound-proofed the cage. He was forced to wear white, and he was joined by other Brothers whom I had interviewed during the Presidential election. Inside the cage was Sobhi Saleh, the parliamentarian who had told me that the Brothers would not field a candidate, and he was accompanied by Rashad el-Bayoumi, who had said much the same thing. Near the back of the cage sat Safwat Hegazy, whom I had seen rant about the Islamists taking every form of power, including the drainage systems. Now Hegazy sat in silence; even if he had tried to speak, nobody would have heard him through the cage. He looked old and tired.
On Monday, Morsi died during another of these stressful and humiliating rituals. According to official reports, he spoke heatedly to the judge and then fainted. Morsi suffered from diabetes and other medical issues, and human-rights organizations had said that he wasn’t receiving proper care in prison.
The former President has been described as a martyr, but the term isn’t exactly appropriate. A martyr dies for a larger cause; a victim dies because of larger forces. There’s a tendency for some Americans to view the Muslim Brotherhood as a kind of negative essence of Islam, as if all of the flaws of the organization can be attributed to the faith that its followers espouse. But the group is a product of its history: it was founded during a period of colonial occupation, and then it was shaped by decades of government repression. The issue isn’t just that the institutions of the state were always opposed to the Brothers but that the group itself has internalized the brutality and dysfunction of its environment.
And it’s unlikely that Morsi will provide the inspiration of a martyr, because the legacy of political Islam in Egypt is so damaged. The violence of the nineteen-eighties and nineties, ranging from the assassination of Sadat to a massacre of innocent tourists in Luxor, in 1997, turned the vast majority of Egyptians against groups like al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya. Even when I met former practicitioners of terrorism, like Salah Bayoumi, they often said the same thing: that the violence turned out to be politically useless. It’s striking that, despite the government-led massacres in Cairo and the subsequent crackdown, relatively few survivors and relatives have responded with acts of terror. And most incidents of terrorism have occurred in the remote Sinai peninsula, rather than in the heavily populated Upper Egypt, which was a cradle of radical Islam during earlier generations. The Egyptian government has banned the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, but there’s no evidence that the Brothers have adopted tactics of violent resistance. Given the repressive climate, and given all the suffering of Morsi and other Brothers, it would be absurd for the Trump Administration to follow through on threats it has made to designate the group a terrorist organization.
In the end, the Brotherhood has already suffered its worst possible punishment. Most Egyptians, even those who voted for Morsi, seem to have concluded that the organization had its chance at power and failed. The Brotherhood’s long history means that it will survive in some way, but if it ever reëmerges with legal status in Egypt, it will probably take the form of a religious and social group, rather than a political force. And Morsi represents a cautionary tale for any Egyptian President. In a nation of splintered institutions, frustrated idealism, and dysfunctional governance, even the highest seat of power can turn into a trap—a caged man shouting, “I am the President of the Republic!”