Before becoming Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi was hardly a major political player. If it was not for a technicality that eliminated the Muslim Brotherhood’s original candidate, he would never have become head of state and then died at age 67 in custody as its most mortal enemy.
The Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt’s largest opposition group for decades, having amassed supporters through religious rhetoric and charity – rose to power following the overthrow of longstanding president Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
When an elections committee rejected the candidacy of the group’s political mastermind Khairat al-Shater on account of past court rulings against him, the Brotherhood nominated Morsi.
Morsi, a member since the 1970s, took leave from his academic job as the head of the Material Science Department at the Faculty of Engineering in the University of Zagazig in Egypt’s Delta region, and became head of the group’s newly-formed Freedom and Justice Party.
The Muslim Brotherhood secured a majority in the country’s first free parliamentary elections, held between November 2011 and January 2012. After being the subject of the state’s oppression since its founding in 1928, the Brotherhood set its eyes on the presidency.
Morsi was pushed to the front just as the group’s popularity was taking a downward direction. The group had publicly vowed not to field a presidential candidate to allow for political diversity, but then did so anyway, sparking accusations that it was excluding civil political actors that played a major role in the ousting of Mubarak.
Morsi’s year in power was tumultuous. The Muslim Brotherhood and the president came under increasing attack for monopolizing power, while violence against protesters and rights violations persisted.
In November 2012, Morsi issued a controversial constitutional declaration giving his decisions immunity from judicial oversight. Protests outside the presidential palace that followed were met with violence and further contributed to the demise of the group.
Throughout his short presidency, Morsi’s opponents nicknamed him “the spare”, a constant reminder that he was never intended to be president.
The Egyptian state has had a longstanding animosity with Islamist groups, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, which developed a strong following across the country since its establishment by the group’s founder Hassan al-Banna in 1928. When Morsi came to power, state institutions that had been conditioned to treat the group as a state enemy for decades had to work under its leadership.
Throughout its history, the Brotherhood — which has strong allies in the region including Turkey, Qatar and the Islamist movement Hamas — was accused of carrying out terrorist attacks and assassinations. Despite starting out having a militant wing, the group rejected violence in the late 1960s in reconciliation with the state in return for the release of its political prisoners.
Under president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the group sustained a severe crackdown in the 1950s and 1960s, with its leaders rounded up and tortured in prison. However, Nasser’s predecessor Anwar al-Sadat reintegrated the group into political life and it continued to operate with a low ceiling until it rose to power in 2011.
Rise of Sisi
On June 30, 2013, sweeping protests against President Morsi spread across the country. On July 3, then-defense minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who went on to resign his military status and take the reigns of power, announced Morsi’s deposition.
After several days of house arrest, Morsi was taken to prison where he remained in almost complete isolation until his death.
His death was foreseen. In 2018, three UK parliamentarians who responded to his family’s request to examine his situation warned that if his treatment did not change, the “consequence could be his premature death.”
According to the report, Morsi – who suffered from diabetes – was denied medication, and made to sleep on the floor with just two bed-covers. The parliamentarians reviewed court transcripts in which Morsi said that he lost sight in his left eye and fell unconscious due to blood sugar drop.
Morsi was reportedly spending 23 hours a day in solitary confinement and was only allowed three visits by his family over a period of six years.
Having been hailed by Time magazine as “the most important man in the Middle East” in 2012, Morsi continued to deteriorate slowly and quietly in prison. Outside, his supporters, who staged massive sit-ins demanding his reinstatement, were forcefully dispersed in August 2013, leaving hundreds dead according to Egypt’s health ministry, and more than 1,000 according to Human Rights Watch.
It is possibly the most serious crisis the Muslim Brotherhood has experienced to date. President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, since coming to power, came down hard on the group — arresting most of its leaders, while the rest fled the country. The Brotherhood has since been declared a terrorist organization and hundreds were tried and sentenced to death or long sentences over their affiliation.
Despite its leaders repeatedly asserting that the group stands by its nonviolence pledge, the Brotherhood was accused of orchestrating terrorist attacks that followed its fall.
Morsi, a defendant in numerous cases along with his fellow Brotherhood leaders after the group was declared a terrorist organization, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for ordering the violent dispersal of protests against him. He had several ongoing cases with charges including espionage, murder and conspiring with foreign forces.
On Monday, he appeared in court facing charges of espionage with the Palestinian Hamas militant group. According to an official who spoke anonymously to The Associated Press, Morsi addressed the court then collapsed in the cage used to hold prisoners and was pronounced dead shortly after.
In his final speech, the former ruler asserted that he was still Egypt’s legitimate president, as he has repeatedly done since his removal from power. He then retreated for the last time to the glass soundproof cage especially installed to muffle his voice and fell to the floor.
Morsi’s body was buried on Tuesday in the presence of only his lawyer and two sons, according to the Freedom and Justice Party.