Mohamed Morsi and the fall of Egypt’s ‘honorable’ revolution

Why We Wrote This

Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s short time in power demonstrated that in an era of political upheaval, honorable intentions are not enough. Flexibility and the shrewdness needed to build coalitions are necessary as well.

Murad Sezer/Reuters
People flash Rabia signs, Muslim Brotherhood support gestures, as they hold a picture of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi during a symbolic funeral prayer at the courtyard of Fatih Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, June 18, 2019.

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Mohamed Morsi was not Egypt’s George Washington. The first democratically elected Egyptian president, Mr. Morsi, who died during a courtroom appearance on Monday, did not manage to transform his nation from a dictatorship into a democracy following the 2011 popular overthrow of authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.

But Mr. Morsi was a Muslim Brotherhood consensus candidate rather than a political star. Facing a judiciary stacked with Mubarak loyalists and a military “deep state,” he ruled as if he held all the cards. He failed to build ties with secularists, nationalists, and leftists. He mismanaged the economy and media relations.

Mr. Morsi had lost control of Egypt’s national narrative when mass protests followed by a military coup finally ousted him in 2013.

But his downfall provided a road map to sharing power for Islamists and democrats elsewhere. In Tunisia, Islamists stepped down from government following protests and formed a coalition with other parties. In Jordan, Kuwait, and Morocco, the Brotherhood has focused on electoral reform and other political common-ground issues.

Mr. Morsi wrongly believed that love of country was all he needed for success. “My country, even if it fought me, is dear to me,” he said, quoting a poem, in his last court appearance. “My people, even if they resented me, are honorable.”

Egypt’s first democratically elected president, who died during a courtroom appearance on Monday, was a figure who did not produce the greatness his era demanded.

Mohamed Morsi will be remembered as the Islamist who could never live up to the task of pulling Egypt from decades of dictatorship into a 21st century democracy following the 2011 popular overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

Never intended to lead his own party, let alone the nation, Mr. Morsi struggled to fit the bill as “Egypt’s George Washington,” and his subsequent persecution following his overthrow by Egypt’s generals in 2013 became a lesson for Arab democrats.  

Guided by the stubborn belief in the righteousness of his cause, Mr. Morsi did little more in his one year in power than prove that mediocrity and good intentions alone in the time of revolution can be fatal.

Party man

A soft-spoken engineer who completed his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California, Mr. Morsi was by most accounts “unremarkable.”

Neither a firebrand nor an innovator, not known for his oratory skills or for having the common touch, he rose through the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, then Egypt’s largest opposition movement, by simply keeping his head down and following orders with unwavering loyalty. He was a party pure-blood; a true believer.

“He is a party man, not a politician,” many of his Brotherhood peers would tell me in private during the country’s 2012 elections.

Mr. Morsi’s rise to the presidency itself was by accident; the Brotherhood’s front-runner candidate, Khairat Al Shater, a gifted politician and firebrand, dropped out weeks before the election after the military and courts annulled his candidacy due to a pre-revolution stint in prison.

The Islamists put forward Mr. Morsi as a party consensus candidate. He had no checkered past and had uttered no controversial statements that would alienate liberals or Christians, but he was also a loyal party member who would stick to the script. He would barely scrape by in the final runoff, with 51.7% of the vote.

From the very beginning, Egypt’s first freely elected president was up against a judiciary stacked with Mubarak loyalists and a military “deep state” that challenged his legitimacy at every move.

Mr. Morsi could not afford a stumble.

But with the Brotherhood controlling Parliament and now the presidency, he would govern as if he held all the cards.

A stubborn believer in majority rule, Mr. Morsi followed a winner-take-all approach to democracy. Although that may work in internal-party politics, it proved catastrophic in governing a country still shaking off the last remnants of a dictatorship.

Time and again, he either refused or failed to build ties with secularists, leftists, and nationalists or allay their fears that the Brotherhood was laying the groundwork for an Egyptian theocracy. In a divided nation, he often appealed only to his supporters.

To the other camps, his acts to “safeguard Egypt’s democratic transition” looked like a dictator’s power grab.

In August 2012, when Egypt’s post-revolution constitution was under attack by the courts and powerful military council, Mr. Morsi granted himself far-reaching powers and purged the military leadership. That November, he mobilized the armed forces to protect the vote on the draft constitution, sparking deadly street violence between Islamists and leftists.

After months of economic mismanagement, a tone-deaf approach to the media, and refusal to adjust his policies, Mr. Morsi had already lost the narrative in Egypt when mass protests erupted over his rule in June 2013. A military coup forced him out of office weeks later.

Mr. Morsi would spend the next six years in jail facing multiple show trials for murder and espionage. It was during the latest session in an espionage trial on Monday that he collapsed and died. He had been held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and denied medical treatment for diabetes and high blood pressure, his family said.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called for an independent investigation into his death and the conditions of his confinement.

Ahmed Omar/AP/File
Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, wearing a red jumpsuit that designates he was sentenced to death, raises his hands inside a defendant's cage in a makeshift courtroom at the national police academy, in an eastern suburb of Cairo, June 21, 2015.

Islamist roadmap

Perhaps a more politically astute president would have been aware of the pitfalls that awaited him, built bridges with political allies across the aisle, crafted his own narrative, or leveraged his millions of grassroots supporters to head off a potential coup.

But it was the downfall that provided a road map to Islamists and democrats elsewhere.

Two years after Tunisia’s revolution, when leftists and secularists protested en masse against the ruling Brotherhood-inspired Ennahda party, Tunisian Islamists stepped down from the government and formed a coalition with other parties.

The Brotherhood in Jordan, Kuwait, and Morocco have since found common ground with liberals and leftists by focusing on the issues of electoral reform, fighting corruption, and economic justice, avoiding the identity politics that divided them.

Most recently, Algerian and Sudanese democratic activists have refused to leave the streets after toppling their strongmen to ensure their militaries complete the transition to civilian rule.

But such considerations were never at the forefront of Mr. Morsi’s thinking.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Mr. Morsi’s presidency was his steadfast belief that his love for country, much like his love for the party, was all that was needed for success.

In his closing statement in his last court appearance, Mr. Morsi quoted a poem:

“My country, even if it fought me, is dear to me. My people, even if they resented me, are honorable.”

In Egypt’s revolution, perhaps honorable was not enough.

Mr. Morsi’s attempt to be what he saw as honorable, rather than being the charismatic dealmaking politician needed for the moment, was not enough for the delicate transition.

Also, although the Egyptian people’s revolution and calls for democracy and freedom were honorable, they too were unprepared for the cynical counterrevolution and manipulation of political sentiments on the street that led people to call for the military to return – a decision many now regret.

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