The Death of Former Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi – a Martyr and a Symbol for a Movement in Crisis

Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected president, ousted in a 2013 coup, collapsed and died on Monday, June 17, 2019 during one of many court sessions dealing with his conviction for espionage. For the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s death in court while fighting for his innocence turned him into a martyr (shahid) and hero, symbolizing sacrifice and steadfastness in an era of mihna and persecution by the regime. The Muslim Brotherhood accused the regime of deliberate murder for ignoring Morsi’s deteriorating health. Even among the Muslim Brotherhood’s opponents, Morsi’s death served as evidence of the severe political repression under ʽAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi and of the harsh conditions of thousands of political opponents in prisons.

However, as the first elected president in Egypt’s modern history, Morsi symbolizes for many the missed historic opportunity for political change in Egypt. Morsi, a member of parliament during Mubarak’s term, was not one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s senior leaders; his candidacy for the presidency was a default option, after the strongest figure in the movement, Khairat al-Shater, was disqualified. Morsi was not only a default choice for the movement, but also for many young revolutionaries and Muslim Brotherhood opponents who had to choose between him and Ahmed Shafiq, a military man identified with the old establishment. The choice of Morsi was a choice of the lesser of two evils, and it was a defense of the revolution against the old elites who sought to eliminate the prospect of a real revolution.

Morsi, a figure without any charisma, became a leader who was caught up in a historical role that was beyond his abilities. His personality and patterns of control during his year in office contributed, along with other factors, to the loss of a historic opportunity for change. At the fragile point in time after the overthrow of Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood did not present a vision or any ‘Islamic project’ to deal with Egypt’s difficult challenges. Even when they took power, the movement continued to function as a closed one, under siege, acting only in its own interest. Ideological and institutional loyalty to the movement continued to serve as the basis for formulating its policies and plans on a national level. Morsi’s centralized control patterns, the exclusion of other political forces, his focus on the ‘Ikhwanization’ of the political system, and political appointments only from within the circles of the movement − while conducting a war of attrition against the institutions of government and bureaucracy, including the strong judicial system − were severe mistakes reflecting the intoxication with power on the part of the movement. Above all, Morsi’s failure to deal with Egypt’s severe economic problems contributed to chronic instability, which was manifested by clashes with opposition forces that never accepted the Brotherhood’s victory and their rule as legitimate. This resistance was used by the military to carry out a coup in June 2013 and put an end to the Brotherhood’s rule and to Egypt’s first democratic experience.

The Muslim Brotherhood today is a movement in a severe crisis. Under al-Sisi, the movement is experiencing severe repression. In addition to outlawing and defining it as a terrorist organization, the regime has taken several measures to eliminate the movement’s presence in Egypt. Among these are the mass imprisonment of its leaders, activists, and supporters, and confiscation of the movement’s assets. No less significantly, the regime has undertaken a campaign to delegitimize the movement, presenting its leaders, members, and supporters as enemies of the Egyptian nation. The movement has been associated with extremism and presented as an inseparable part of terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State, which threaten the stability of Egypt. Denial by the regime of the Brotherhood’s right to exist has led to the strengthening of opposition among political circles in Egypt to any reconciliation with the movement.

Under this repression, the chances that Morsi’s death will elicit a significant enough reaction to threaten the stability of the regime are slim. Since 2013, thousands of the movement’s members have been imprisoned, while others have fled or have been exiled, mainly in Turkey and Qatar. The movement, which was never a homogenous body, became fragmented, resulting in disagreements over the interpretation of the circumstances that led to Morsi’s downfall, the lessons to be learned from this experience, and over future strategies for action. This self-criticism has been driven mainly by the younger generation of the movement, which even before the January 2011 revolution criticized the movement’s veteran and conservative leadership, and demanded greater transparency within it. However, this movement is far from being in danger of annihilation. Although underground, the movement still has networks and connections that enable its members to survive and to restore the movement ideologically. Morsi’s transformation into a symbol may breathe new life into the movement, and encourage its members to toe the line and resolve internal friction.

The conceptual development of the movement is as fundamental as the restoration of its organizational structure. This would not be the first time the movement’s conceptual development would be the product of oppression. The severe suppression of the movement in the 1950s and 1960s under Gamal ʽAbd al-Nasser led to the development of Sayyid Qutb’s concepts of takfir (declaring other Muslims apostates) and jihad, as well as to strengthening the pragmatic approach that sought to make the Muslim Brotherhood a legitimate force in the political arena. However, the movement had no historical experience with ruling. How will the movement’s short and failed experience of power and the delegitimization, no less, of its rule affect the movement conceptually? The movement is at an ideological crossroads. Its choices will be products of the quality and scope of the process of self-criticism within it. However, its choices are closely linked to the regime’s strategies, whether they are to continue oppressing it or to contain it or to integrate it into the limited political system.