Egyptian media reported late on the 17th of June that former President Mohammad Morsi had collapsed after speaking in court during a trial that many had previously characterised as a show trial organised for the benefit of sitting President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
The dramatic way in which Morsi died combined with the fact that it has been reported that Cairo has refused to allow for a family burial in Morsi’s ancestral town, has created the overall effect of turning Morsi into a martyr. The fact that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the first world leader to call Morsi a martyr helps to contextualise the strong feelings of anger that Morsi’s death have aroused throughout the Ummah (global community of Muslims).
Morsi’s record during his year in office is in many ways less impressive than his legacy as a martyr. Prior to yesterday, Morsi was best remembered as a man whose period in government was hamstrung by inexperience on the domestic front and one mired in contradiction in terms of foreign policy. Likewise, there are as many rumours and conspiracy theories regarding Morsi’s controversial relationship with Israel as there are rumours and conspiracy theories about his supposed relations with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas. Many also felt it odd that Morsi advocated for stronger relations with a pre-JCPOA Iran whilst simultaneously condemning Iran’s allies in Damascus. At the end of the day, Morsi proved too indecisive in foreign policy to bring the rumours under control or to even clarify his position on key regional issues.
Morsi was ultimately brought down by a popular street movement just as sure as the election which brought him to power was the result of a popular street movement. Morsi remains the first Egyptian leader of modern times who came to power through a traditional election but this is not the only reason that millions are mourning Morsi’s death.
Whilst Mori’s successor, the military backed Sisi promised a return to stability, Egypt’s economy is performing shamefully poorly both by the standards of a fairly recent past and by the standards of Egypt’s potential. Altough Sisi has managed to somewhat successfully balance relations between the US, EU, China and Russia, he is seen by many Arabs in the region as a weak leader whose foreign policy is authored not in Cairo but in Riyadh. At the same time, Turkey and Egypt continue to suffer from inexorably poor relations not least due to disputes over gas rights in the Mediterranean in which Cairo has consistently sided with Greek Cyprus and its partner Israel.
But it is not merely Sisi’s record that has forced many Egyptians to revise their views on Morsi. Whilst Sisi is the archetypal uninspiring Arab leader whose power rests on the approval of the military, Morsi’s legacy came to be viewed as one of a man whose aims were sincere even if his policies were often contradictory. Likewise, Mosi was seen as someone who rode to power on a wave of democratic optimism rather than one who governed in front of the backdrop of military cynicism. That being said, his hostility to the Nasserist legacy of modern Egypt troubled many but even many Nasserists were shocked by Morsi’s treatment as a prisoner at the hands of Sisi’s state.
But whilst Morsi was something of a forgotten man in much of the world in recent years, his death has sparked anger, sorrow and outrage even among many of his political opponents. Whilst many have pointed their finger at Sisi, accusing the Egyptian leader of foul play, there are bigger questions which emerge from this assumption.
Whilst Sisi isn’t known for intellectual prowess, anyone with half a brain would have known that intentionally killing Morsi would result in widespread outrage in Egypt and beyond. As Sisi has presided over an economy that has left even many of his supporters feeling disenfranchised, Cairo cannot afford to arouse further negative public opinion, especially during the long summer months.
Therefore, whilst it is possible that Morsi’s death was a matter of negligence rather than direct malice, if in fact the former President of Egypt was killed, one must allow for the possibility that he was killed by someone who sought to weaken Sisi’s rule. This is not to say that Sisi is not capable of killing an opponent, but it is suggesting that Sisi would be strategically foolish in the extreme if he ordered or green-lighted the murder of a man who is far more dangerous to Sisi as a martyr than he ever was when alive.