The Death of Mohamed Morsi

Tom Stevenson

Egypt’s former president Mohamed Morsi collapsed and died yesterday in the glass-enclosed dock of a jailhouse courtroom. No images have been published of his final moments: the authorities confiscated the cameras of everyone present. Morsi had spent years in the Scorpion wing of Cairo’s Tora prison, often in solitary confinement. He was denied medical treatment for long-term illnesses. His family say he was subject to a programme of medical negligence. They have not yet seen his body. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for an investigation but there is no chance of that.

Egypt’s paper of record, al-Ahram, reported the death by printing one paragraph on page four. Internationally the news has received less attention than it should have. There are more former heads of state imprisoned around the world than you might think: Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Antonio Saca in El Salvador, Charles Taylor in Liberia, Lula in Brazil, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye in South Korea, Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. Hundreds of people have died in Egypt’s jails since the military coup led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the summer of 2013. But the death in custody of a former president is something more.

Morsi has been described as Egypt’s ‘first and only democratically elected president’. The phrase is not inaccurate but it is misleading. Morsi ran in the 2012 presidential election as a last-minute replacement, or ‘spare wheel’, for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate of choice, Khairat al-Shater, who was disqualified for having been too recently in prison. Shater was arrested again after Sisi’s coup and remains in jail.

That the army had prevented Shater from running ought to have been a warning sign. The junta that took over following the resignation of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 had already appointed military governors across the country and was trying people who’d taken part in the uprising in military courts. During the elections the generals dissolved parliament and curtailed the power of the presidency. Morsi and the Brothers were never more than a civilian façade for military rule. It was only a matter of time until he was deposed.

Around a thousand Brotherhood supporters were massacred by security forces in Rabaa square in August 2013, a month after Morsi’s ouster. In 2015, nine members of the Brotherhood’s remaining leadership were executed in an apartment in a Cairo suburb. Tens of thousands of civilians were imprisoned.

The governments of the United States and United Kingdom have been reliable supporters of Sisi’s regime throughout. It is now clear that they knew about the coup well in advance. In a book published last year, the former New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick reveals that as early as March 2013, Sisi had told the US secretary of state, John Kerry, that he was planning to overthrow Morsi. The British ambassador at the time, James Watt, also appears to have known in the spring that the army was plotting a coup. In April, Sisi told the US ambassador what he had in mind. By May, the State Department was working to get Morsi to stand down. According to Kirkpatrick’s account, the US secretary of defence, Chuck Hagel, told Sisi he had to ‘protect his country’. Afterwards Hagel sent Sisi a biography of George Washington.