Mohammed Morsi's death from a heart attack, while facing espionage charges in court yesterday, was in some respects a characteristic ending for the man who came to embody the political hopes of many non-secularists, not only in Egypt but across the entire Middle East. Buried in private today, the end of his life was as ignominious as his rule.
Morsi had spent the past six years languishing in the maximum security Wadi El Natroun prison, just outside Cairo, for charges including inciting violence and espionage for foreign militant groups. His time in jail was blighted by health issues, including diabetes and kidney disease.
The wretched position in which Morsi found himself was not only reflective of the weakened status of his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, since it was ousted from power in 2013 and outlawed, but also underlines the ignominy with which many Egyptians regard his one-year presidency in 2012. When the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, ascended to power in both parliamentary and presidential elections in the first free elections to take place in Egypt, Morsi's rule seemed cursed from its infancy. He ruled during a period marked by the highest number of strikes and political protests in modern Egyptian history. While Muslim Brotherhood members will mourn his loss, many Egyptians will look back on his tenure as the year a protracted political crisis occurred, partly due to Morsi's intransigence towards key political players while in power.
In many ways, he was doomed even before he became president. From within the Muslim Brotherhood itself, there were critical murmurs about his lack of leadership qualities as he was prone to awkward displays in public, such as when he appeared at a live press conference with then Australian prime minister Julia Gillard. His inability to present Egypt on the international stage was an embarrassing reminder of his inexperience in government, underlining the many reservations that Egyptians had about Muslim Brotherhood governance.
His tenure was marked by a plethora of mistakes that served to antagonise those who doubted the ability of his presidency from day one. He, and indeed the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole, took the electoral win in 2012 as evidence of the endpoint of the democratic process. For Morsi, the election was evidence of his mandate for Muslim Brotherhood policies in all areas of social, political and economic life, much to the chagrin of the secular opposition.
Egyptian society after Hosni Mubarak's demise was deeply polarised. After years of authoritarianism and with such a precarious transition to democracy, a leader with the ability to appear consensus-driven and showing willing to compromise was what was needed. Instead, Morsi took what appeared to be unilateral action in the formation of a constitution in November 2012, alongside a political crackdown on satirists, including the imprisonment of comedian Bassem Youssef, presenter of Egypt's equivalent of the Daily Show. Such actions were fuel for secularist groups such as the April 6 Youth Movement and elements of the former regime (who never went away) and claimed that Morsi was bringing about the "Brotherhoodisation" of the Egyptian state.
Yet it would be unfair to assess Morsi’s failed presidency as the sole responsibility of an inexperienced, albeit dogmatic politician. Whoever succeeded Mubarak had a difficult task to deal with. There is no doubt that the inexperience of Morsi personally as a leader, and of the Muslim Brotherhood as governors, was apparent during their year in power but their inheritance was problematic. Egypt was a nation with a predominant Salafi current, a weak secular opposition and the existence of a deep state establishment, which was resistant to reforms. The economy was in crisis, with tourism and investment revenues at an all-time low, following the tumultuous events which rocked Egypt after nationwide protests in 2011. Youth unemployment and corruption worsened under Morsi.
Piles of garbage lined the streets of the capital while power cuts were an almost daily occurrence. There were weekly public sector strikes over wages, notably by the nation’s doctors. Meanwhile, security on the streets deteriorated under his watch, with an increase in violent crime, theft and sexual harassment of women in many urban areas.
Nevertheless, Morsi made mistakes which ensured he would end up marginalised. He failed to share the political process with other social actors, he surrounded himself with Muslim Brotherhood loyalists, making political appointments such as the controversial selection of Talat Abdullah for the post of prosecutor general. Although such moves were alarming to secularists, Morsi’s decision to add a provision to the constitution that banned anyone who had occupied posts in the Mubarak regime from running for office for 10 years effectively pushed his opponents into a position of fight or flight. History tells us which option they chose. When Morsi gave a defiant televised speech on July 2, insisting he would defend the constitutional legitimacy of his office if necessary with his own blood, his fate was sealed. When he was arrested the following day, the chaos that erupted in Rabaa Al Adawiyya Square in Cairo on July 4, 2013, led to one of the darkest days in Egypt’s history. Morsi's legacy is a poignant reminder of the fragility of democratic transitions across the entire region.
Dr Gillian Kennedy is a Leverhulme research fellow in the department of political economy at King’s College London, where she writes about Egyptian politics, Arab diaspora activism and British foreign policy