The Egyptian court that sentenced former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi to death this week may have done more than commit a human-rights violation. It may have condemned Egypt to years of violence and more decades of economic stagnation. Support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which Morsi led, probably has fallen to about a fifth of Egyptians, but that is a very large minority to nurse a grudge against the system. Bombings and violence have returned to Egypt’s Luxor tourist destination, which last witnessed a major attack in 1997. The US government appears now to have made its peace with Egypt’s military junta, satisfied that the holding of phony presidential “elections” in 2014, won by a general, has removed the stigma of the 2013 coup. Arms and aid shipments are back to normal, and the rise of ISIL has made the military regime useful to the West.
Morsi squeaked to victory in the June 2012 presidential elections against Ahmed Shafik, a former Air Force general and deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister. Egyptians, who had demonstrated in the millions against dictatorship and lack of jobs or affordable staples in 2011 at Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country, faced an unpalatable choice in their first free and fair presidential poll. It was conducted on the French model, with some 14 candidates in a first round in May (I was in Egypt then, and the hope was palpable) and then a run-off between the two top vote-getters. Most Egyptians were deeply disappointed at this Hobson’s choice between the religious right wing and a man of the old regime. In effect, they’ve never since had any other choice.
The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 broke out on January 25. Three days later, Mubarak’s secret police arrested Morsi and 23 other Muslim Brotherhood leaders, even though the Brotherhood leadership had been cautious about participating in the protests and formed a minority of the demonstrators. Two weeks later, in the chaos of the revolution, the Brotherhood figures made a daring jail break. Regime officials charged at the time that they were aided in escaping by Gaza-based Hamas and by Lebanon-based Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas, which seems a little unlikely, to say the least. Further, it was alleged that they passed the plans of the maximum-security prison to those groups, which the Egyptian government sees as terrorists, and so became guilty of material support of terrorism. It is typical of the Egyptian military to attempt to smear the Muslim Brotherhood, which foreswore violence in the 1970s, as being no more than a terrorist organization closely connected to actual terrorists like Al Qaeda. It was for the jailbreak and its circumstances that Morsi was sentenced to death this week, even though the current regime says it honors the January 25 revolution that Morsi’s questionable arrest had been intended, in part, to forestall.
Morsi’s year in power did not reflect well on him. He proposed banning unlicensed public demonstrations, a measure implemented by the current junta. He prosecuted young dissidents who criticized him for political libel, including the leader of the April 6 Youth organization, Ahmed Maher, now jailed by the military. He went after comedian Bassem Youssef. He is accused of having mobilized plainclothes Brotherhood thugs against demonstrators. He pushed through a fundamentalist-tinged constitution in the face of protests by women, Coptic Christians, youth activists, and liberals. He tried to pack the courts with Brotherhood members, tried to impose fundamentalists (some with a violent past) as provincial governors, and tried to create, unconstitutionally and by fiat, a national legislature dominated by the Brotherhood. In short, he conducted what looked to most Egyptians like a slow-motion coup. His economic policies were a disaster. Egypt exploded in anger against him in June of 2013, with millions in the streets and the biggest demonstrations, up and down the Nile, that the country had ever seen. Some of the youth leaders of this protest movement had links with the officer corps, but it is impossible to explain such massive demonstrations by factory workers, urban quarters, towns, and villages as a mere paid-for conspiracy.