Egypt’s Only Democratic Leader Helped Kill Its Democracy

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Mohamed Morsi, who died yesterday, embodied the hope and flaws of Egypt’s revolution.

Mohamed Morsi greets supporters during Egypt's June 2012 presidential election.
Mohamed Morsi greets supporters during Egypt’s June 2012 presidential election.Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

Sadly, a great many Egyptian critics took their dislike of Morsi a step farther, and decided democracy wasn’t worth the trouble. Casting about for a solution to the problem of Morsi, they thought they found their savior in the military.

It was a sign of how, even at the high-water mark of Egypt’s revolutionary moment, people power had its limits. Idealists, reformers, and dreamers toppled Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year dictatorship, and had galvanized such broad and deep public support that, for a time, even the military feared for its perch. But disorganized revolutionary parties, new to politics, fared poorly in the legislative elections and none of their candidates made it to the second and final round of the presidential race.

The military and the Muslim Brotherhood, polar opposites in other ways, still had the best ground game: blind loyalists, organized cadres, and money.

Revolutionaries, liberals and socialists mistrusted Morsi, who as a candidate already had displayed an authoritarian and sectarian streak. He was a mediocrity in the Brotherhood leadership, only enlisted to run because the top choice had been disqualified. Morsi convinced a slim majority to vote for him on the promise that he would govern for everybody, and not just for the Brotherhood. He met with revolutionary youth and activists and promised he would include them in a broad coalition to reform Egypt’s rotten system. At his inaugural speech in Tahrir Square, Morsi invoked dreamy utopianism, and pledged to be accountable “for all Egyptians,” policemen as well as peasants, soldiers as well as protesters. “As for myself, I don’t have rights. I only have duties,” he said. He instructed Egyptians to obey him only if he continued the revolution and delivered its central demands: bread, freedom and social justice.

He singularly failed to live up to those ideas and, after a year in office, Morsi was unceremoniously ousted in an army coup. The new dictator was an army intelligence general in whom Morsi had mistakenly placed his trust. That general, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, manipulated grassroots organizations and harnessed public opinion—which had genuinely turned against Morsi’s sectarianism, corruption, and religious extremism—to end Egyptian democracy itself.

Today, Sisi has replicated the unaccountable and incompetent one-man rule that sparked the revolt of 2011. He has studied history, however, in the hope of avoiding the fate of his predecessors, and concluded that his military predecessors were too soft. Under Sisi’s regime, any dissent at all, even if entirely symbolic, is too much.

That’s why Morsi utterly disappeared after his arrest. His family reportedly was allowed to visit him in prison only three times over the course of his six-year detention. He was held in solitary confinement, denied medical care, and allowed to address judges only from inside a glass-enclosed cage during infrequent court appearances. Egyptian authorities routinely withhold essential medical care like dialysis, insulin, and heart medication, not only as a form of torture but as an adjunct to the arbitrarily and summarily dispensed death penalty.

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