The death of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was tragic in many ways. He collapsed while on trial inside a courtroom in Cairo on June 17, 2019, after giving a short speech. He had been defending himself against accusations of treason, which were used to justify his arrest and imprisonment in a notorious high security prison called al-Aqrab (Arabic for the Scorpion). He was in solitary confinement for six years, enduring far from humane treatment. The harsh, or even torturous, conditions included making him sleep on the floor of his cell, denying visits from his family members (who were allowed to visit him only three times in six years), and most significantly, withholding medications and proper medical treatment, which led to his deteriorating health. As a man in his sixties who was suffering from diabetes and liver and kidney problems, such conditions resulted in losing most of his sight in one eye and, eventually, his life. This is what many—though not all—Egyptians believe to be the cause of his death. Amid the heightening political repression and the stifling of freedom of expression in Egypt, coupled with deepening polarization and mistrust of the “Other,” different, and even conflicting, narratives quickly surfaced, trying to explain why and how Egypt’s former president died.
Although the medical negligence scenario is the most common narrative to explain Morsi’s death, it is not the only one. When he collapsed and then died inside the soundproof glass cage in the courtroom, it took at least 20 minutes for medical aid to be extended to him, despite the continuous banging from other prisoners inside the glass cage. The delayed medical assistance on the day of his death, in addition to the absence of sufficient medical treatment beforehand, were seen as indicative of an intention not to save his life. This led some analysts to frame Morsi’s death as a killing by the Egyptian regime, rather than simply the result of medical negligence.
The delayed medical assistance on the day of his death, in addition to the absence of sufficient medical treatment beforehand, were seen as indicative of an intention not to save his life.
The deceased president’s son, Abdullah Mohamed Morsi, and others, such as journalist Wael Qandil, spoke bluntly about a premeditated, intentional murder on the part of the regime. They accused the government of trying to get rid of a legitimate leader with a popular base of support. In separate interviews with Al Jazeera Mubasher television channel on June 18, one day after the incident, both Abdullah Morsi and Wael Qandil did not rule out the possibility of Morsi being given a wrong medication—or some other substance—intentionally, causing his death. Supporters of this narrative on social media cited the perfect timing of Morsi’s death, which was just a few days before Egypt’s hosting of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, an event that can distract many Egyptians from focusing on the news of Morsi’s death and reacting to it. They also cited the perfect setting of the courtroom, so his death could seem natural and the government could avoid murder accusations, especially since everything is caught on camera.
In contrast, the official state narrative absolved the Egyptian government from any responsibility for Morsi’s death, claiming that he died from a sudden heart attack in the courtroom and insisting that he received the needed medical treatment and appropriate medical care. This was indicated in an official 42-word statement uniformly disseminated by all national media in Egypt.
In an infamous incident caught on camera, an anchorwoman on Egyptian television read this official statement from a teleprompter followed by the phrase “sent from a Samsung device.” A video clip capturing this embarrassing incident spread like wildfire on all social media platforms triggering an outbreak of jokes, mockery, and sarcasm. It was cited by many critics of the Egyptian regime as damning evidence that this government-issued statement was sent to all Egyptian media as a type of orchestrated, state propaganda, rather than a true account of what actually happened based on evidence and facts.
The Underlying Context: Escalating Repression
President Morsi’s death was both preceded and followed by equally grievous developments. After winning in 2012 in the first fair, transparent, and democratic election in Egypt’s history, in the aftermath of the historic Egyptian revolution of 2011, Morsi faced a number of exceptional challenges in addition to the already daunting responsibility of ruling a country of Egypt’s size—geographically, politically, and demographically. He was expected to resolve its numerous problems, which had been building up under Mubarak’s 30-year autocratic rule.
Morsi faced a number of exceptional challenges in addition to the already daunting responsibility of ruling a country of Egypt’s size—geographically, politically, and demographically.
The fact that he came from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has long been persecuted and ostracized under successive Egyptian governments, immediately won Morsi many enemies and opponents. Initial celebratory comments, such as “We are happy to see Egypt’s first democratically elected president,” were met by objections such as “How can we be happy to see Egypt’s first Muslim Brotherhood president?” Such premature resentment did not stop at the individual level. Principal institutions such as the military, police, judicial system, and the media, stopped cooperating with him shortly after his election or helping him to run the country’s affairs at that intricate time. It would even be safe to say that they were deliberately hindering his performance and the fulfillment of his duties. In light of Morsi’s limited political experience, this reflected negatively on his presidency and popularity, especially in the eyes of those in the secular, liberal camps who were already negatively preconditioned against him, due to his Islamist background.
The grievances of some segments of Egyptian society were soon successfully co-opted by the same governing body that had been singlehandedly ruling Egypt under successive presidents since 1952, namely the military, which ended Morsi’s one-year rule and arrested him in July 2013. Some segments of Egyptian society considered the coup a popular uprising or a “second revolution” after 2011; others saw it as a “popularly backed coup,” in an attempt to legitimize the military takeover. But whatever the nomenclature, his departure from the scene ushered in a new phase in Egyptian history.
From this moment onward, Egypt began witnessing an unprecedented increase in repression against political opposition, which started with suppression of the regime’s opponents in the Islamist camp. The Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed as a terrorist organization, leading to a massive wave of arrests targeting its members, many of whom received long prison sentences; some, including the general guide of the group, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, died in jail. Such repressive measures soon grew to include opposition figures from different political and ideological orientations. In addition, Egyptian society experienced extensive muzzling of the media and curbs of freedom of expression, as evidenced in the crackdown on many media outlets, closing of online websites, arrest of many journalists, bloggers, and activists, passing of new laws limiting press freedom, and establishment of a supreme council for media regulation.
This bleak picture of how Morsi was treated while he was president and how things have changed after his ouster extends into the way his death was treated. Egyptian state television did not refer to him as a former president; rather, they referred to him only by name in a brief statement indicating that he died during a trial session in court. Likewise, national daily newspapers mentioned his death only in a few lines in the inside pages. He was denied a funeral—neither public nor private—and only eight of his family members were allowed to pray on his deceased body in prison before burying him in a grave next to Mohammed Mahdi Akef in a Cairo suburb, instead of in his family’s cemetery in the province of Sharqia, as he requested.
The government justified its conduct by framing Morsi as a member of an outlawed terrorist organization facing trial on charges of treason, rather than as a former head of state worthy of a dignified farewell.
Deepening National and International Polarization
The very deep division and polarization in Egyptian society could be seen as both a cause and an effect of the set of developments that ultimately led to Morsi’s death. In sharp contrast to the unique moment of solidarity witnessed during Egypt’s peaceful, historic revolution in 2011, Egyptian society has become increasingly divided and polarized since the military’s toppling of Morsi’s rule in 2013.
Interestingly, social media, which played an important role in igniting the 2011 revolution through increased networking, mobilization, and coordination among activists and protesters, helped to augment the people’s unity and solidarity. However, after the initial success of their revolution, social media assumed an entirely different, or even contradictory, function from 2013 onward: it provided effective tools to different parties to engage in mutual attacks in cyberspace, thus increasing their divisions and deepening their polarization. This became more evident in the contradictory reactions to Morsi’s death.
On the one hand, Morsi’s supporters, many of whom were shocked by his sudden death, expressed sorrow, disappointment, anger, and resentment. Some of them even assigned him the honorable status of martyrdom. On the other hand, Morsi’s opponents either ignored his death completely, or even worse, engaged in sarcasm and insults. Both groups used social media as their battlefield. They resorted not only to written posts and tweets but also to drawings, cartoons, caricatures, poetry, and other forms of expression. Only a few people were able to strike a balance between being fair opponents and just critics through a rational, critical dialogue. The majority, however, gravitated toward one of the two extremes, leaving very little room, if any, for reconciliation.
Only a few people were able to strike a balance between being fair opponents and just critics through a rational, critical dialogue. The majority, however, gravitated toward one of the two extremes, leaving very little room, if any, for reconciliation.
This growing polarization is not only confined to the local or national spheres but also to regional and international domains of influence. Some countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are siding with the Egyptian government’s position, taking into account their support for Egypt’s military takeover in 2013 by the Minister of Defense at the time, now President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. At the same time, the leaders of two other countries, Qatar and Turkey, issued sympathetic obituaries for Morsi; Turkey allowed absentee funeral mass prayers for him, both inside mosques and in public spaces. Similar funeral mass prayers were also held in other countries such as the United States, Canada, Japan, and China. This was perceived by Morsi’s family and supporters as a kind of compensation for the cruel and unfair treatment he endured, both before and after his death.
Future Fears and Threats
One striking observation regarding Morsi’s death is the absence of a strong reaction from the international community and especially from western nations, such as the United States, Canada, and European countries, which have long been regarded as protectors of democracy and human rights. Aside from requests by Amnesty International and the UN human rights office for a fair, transparent, and independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding Morsi’s death, there has been total silence from western nations and the international community at large.
To be sure, such silence and apathy endanger the future of political prisoners in Egypt’s jails. The reluctance of the United States and other major international players, such as the European Union, to take a position on the ongoing and glaring human rights violations in Egypt in general, and on Morsi’s death in particular, sends a chilling message to many political prisoners who continue to be imprisoned in dire circumstances in Egyptian jails.
The reluctance of the United States and other major international players, such as the European Union, to take a position on the ongoing and glaring human rights violations in Egypt in general sends a chilling message to many political prisoners.
Egypt’s 60,000 political prisoners include high profile public figures such as Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, the former presidential candidate and political party leader, who was arrested on his return from London after conducting an interview with Al Jazeera television channel in 2018. His family continues to complain about his deteriorating health behind bars, but no effective action has been taken.
Likewise, Ola al-Qaradawi, the daughter of religious cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and her husband Hossam el-Din Khalaf have been under arrest for two years without trial, in violation of both international law and Egyptian law. Both have been suffering from the harsh conditions of solitary confinement in the same high security prison where Morsi was jailed for six years. Their family made numerous appeals for help, including starting the online campaign #FreeOlaandHosam to raise awareness about their inhumane treatment behind bars, but, again, to no avail.
It is realistic to conclude that continuing governmental repression and unchecked violations of human rights in Egypt, deepening divisions and polarization locally and internationally, and international apathy and silence make for a deadly combination that threatens the lives of thousands of politicians, activists, and journalists currently jailed in Egypt. President Morsi’s tragic death sadly provides the proof.