Why you should care
Long before his dramatic death in court this week, the Egyptian leader made a critical mistake.
The entire Arab world had its eyes on Egypt when it democratically elected its first president in 2012. That man was Mohamed Morsi, a key figure in the powerful Muslim Brotherhood. After 30 years of autocratic rule by President Hosni Mubarak, the Arab Spring gave Morsi, an unlikely candidate, his moment in the sun. What happened next was politics — but it was also highly impolitic.
On Nov. 22, 2012, less than five months after he was sworn in as president, Morsi passed a presidential decree, granting him and his Islamist-dominated assembly extensive new powers over the judiciary. The opposition saw the move as a power grab, worrying some that the Brotherhood would use the elections to seize absolute power. But Morsi’s supporters believed that the decree was the only way to bypass remnants of the old regime and push through a working constitution. What followed were mass demonstrations by two starkly opposing camps. Clashes between pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi protesters erupted throughout the country, and Muslim Brotherhood offices were set on fire.
“Everyone was on the streets,” says Ahmed Hamad, now 32, who photographed the protests as they unfolded. “But nobody knew what the future would hold.”
Morsi’s mistake may have been abandoning the idea of pluralism.
As it turns out, neither did Morsi. He quickly retracted the decree in the face of popular unrest, but the damage he had inflicted was irreparable. Many revolutionaries, even those who’d rallied around him in the name of democracy, lost all confidence in his leadership.
Morsi’s mistake may have been abandoning the idea of pluralism. He’d won the election with just more than half the vote, but rather than acknowledge other points of view, his Parliament held a polarizing referendum — in which only 32 percent of Egyptians participated — before approving their highly contentious constitution, which failed to bother with checks and balances on different branches of government. About 2 million people had gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Arab Spring, but an estimated 200,000 now rallied against Morsi and his style of governing.
“What was driving the protests was the way the government was trying to force through the constitution,” says Timothy Kaldas, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “A constitution needs to be a consensus document. That’s why they need overwhelming majorities.”
“Morsi’s initial action of imposing the decree cast a cloud over everything he did afterward,” Kaldas added.
On Feb. 1, 2013 — less than a week after the anniversary of the revolution — grievances boiled over again after dozens of people died during clashes at a soccer match in Port Said. Morsi attempted to impose a curfew in the Mediterranean city to restore order, but neither residents nor armed forces obeyed. He was clearly losing authority.
Little did President Morsi know that the clock was ticking. He thought he had the support of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whom he’d promoted to chief commander of armed forces upon taking office. But less than a year later, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — who vehemently oppose the Brotherhood franchise in the Middle East — were conspiring with el-Sisi to overthrow Morsi, according to several American officials who spoke to The New Yorker for an investigation last year.
Safwan Mohamed, an exiled Egyptian activist in Germany and a former member of the liberal Dostour Party, remembers the tumultuous weeks leading up to the coup. “I was against both the Brotherhood and the military,” he says with resignation. “But many leftists and secularists were urging the military to intervene. I couldn’t believe it.”
On July 3, 2013, the military overthrew Morsi following days of mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square. Morsi was taken into military custody, spurring his supporters to launch their own demonstrations. Less than a month later, the Egyptian armed forces arrived to crush the demonstrations. Bulldozers, armored personnel carriers, ground forces and police were deployed to attack men, women and children in what became one of the bloodiest massacres in Egyptian history. At least 817 people died there.
But perhaps most harrowing was the silence that followed. Most secular parties didn’t condemn the killings, effectively abandoning the values they championed during the 18-day uprising that had toppled Mubarak in 2011. Morsi was eventually placed in solitary confinement in Tora Prison, with British politicians warning last year that the former president could die unless he received urgent medical care. The prognosis was correct. Morsi — a diabetic who suffered from hypertension and liver disease — collapsed and died during a court hearing on June 17.
Many young Egyptians remain nostalgic for the unrest that unfolded in 2012. Now el-Sisi — who’s served as president since 2014 — recently approved constitutional changes that allow him to stay in office until 2030. While the public approved those changes via referendum, it wasn’t exactly free or fair: Opposition campaigners were arrested, liberal parties were kept from publicly campaigning against the changes and tens of thousands of websites were blocked by the government before el-Sisi got his expected victory.
Observers might point to Morsi’s death as the last gasp of a revolution. But Egypt’s democratic process had perished long before.