Former Egypt President Mohamed Morsi Dies, Leaving the Muslim Brotherhood’s Future Uncertain

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Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi arrives at the Chancellery to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on January 30, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

June 17, 2019
by
Marcia Robiou Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, died Monday after collapsing in a Cairo courtroom, according to Egypt’s official media sources. He was 67.

Morsi’s presidency was a historic break from years of autocratic rule in Egypt. The country’s experiment with democracy came to an abrupt end, however, in July 2013, when Morsi was ousted by his defense minister, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Morsi had only been in office for a year — Sisi has ruled ever since.

Morsi leaves behind a mixed legacy. As a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, an influential opposition party that operated largely underground until his presidency, Morsi was viewed by some as the country’s legitimate president, even after he was ousted. The Muslim Brotherhood has drawn millions of supporters worldwide for its blend of religion, social welfare, and political activism. The movement has inspired political parties in some countries, including Tunisia and Jordan.

“The goal [for them] was to see Morsi reinstalled,” said Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Now, that will no longer be possible.”

Morsi’s critics, though, claim that his inability to manage rival factions within Egyptian society paved the way for a military coup against him.

“The question is who is going to be doing the remembering,” said Daniel Benjamin, former ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department. “International analysts will look at Morsi as a rather inept politician who unfortunately blew a big chance, whereas Islamists will see him as a martyr.”

Morsi’s dramatic sudden death may increase international scrutiny on human rights in Egypt. The former president had been detained since 2013 under a number of charges, including espionage. He was in poor health, suffering from diabetes and liver disease. In a March 2018 report, a panel of British parliamentarians warned that the inadequate care he was receiving while incarcerated could lead to his untimely death.

“His loss is an important one symbolically,” Dunne said. “He was the first freely elected president of Egypt so its highly symbolic that he is imprisoned, denied medical treatment, and then collapsed and died in a courtroom in one of the many, many trials that he was subjected to.”

Morsi also leaves behind a deeply fractured Muslim Brotherhood.

The Sisi administration has undermined the group by either placing them in jail or forcing them into exile. Tens of thousands of Egyptians have been arrested since 2013, most accused of having connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, according to a 2018 report by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Amid that environment, Brotherhood members have been at loggerheads over how best to continue their work.

“There hasn’t been a formal split, but the internal divisions are pretty stark,” said Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “I would say it is one of the worst internal divides in the Brotherhood’s history.”

Some key leaders in London are more amenable to waiting until the political situation subsides before openly resuming their work in Egypt, according to Dunne. Another group, comprised of younger members in Turkey, “really want to take the revolution forward” through nonviolent means.

U.S. President Donald Trump pushed for the Muslim Brotherhood to be labeled a foreign terrorist organization in April after a meeting with Sisi.

Experts warn that Morsi’s death, against a backdrop of political repression and economic stagnation in the country, could trigger a backlash.

“There is no question that the regime has basically closed off so much of the political space in Egypt that people who were sympathetic to the Brotherhood really feel like they have nowhere to go now,” Benjamin said. “And that could potentially trigger violence.”

There is also a concern that the Sisi administration will tighten his grip on power in anticipation of protests in the wake of Morsi’s death.

“Whenever leading figures of the opposition dies under circumstances like this, it is natural for autocratic regimes to be on guard against any possible outbursts,” Benjamin said. He anticipates more arrests of possible Brotherhood sympathizers and more security officers roaming the streets.

“The thing about the Brotherhood is that is not just an organization,” said Hamid. “It is an idea, and ideas don’t die or disappear easily.”

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