Morsi endured an institutional onslaught and propaganda campaign that undermined him at every turn – and ultimately buried Egypt’s short-lived democratic experiment.
The summer of 2013 culminated a turbulent chapter in Egypt’s modern history, when counterrevolutionary forces triumphed over a nascent democratic experiment in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings of 2011.
The short-lived presidency of Mohamed Morsi, elected in 2012 and ousted a year later, represented a brief democratic interlude in a country which until then had never elected a civilian leader.
Criticism surrounding the legacy of Morsi’s brief tenure frequently points to a divisive presidency beset by ambitious and sectarian power grabs, and a failure to deliver on the economic and social demands underpinned by the revolution that brought him to power.
Less highlighted however, were an array of structural impediments – both domestic and foreign – that ultimately doomed Morsi during his precarious year in office. These impediments would have likely besieged any leader in his place, but the Muslim Brotherhood was firmly in the establishment’s crosshairs.
Many of Egypt’s new political parties that were formed in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak lacked the experience and political organisation that the Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed, which Morsi belonged to.
A veteran activist and engineering professor, Morsi rose through the ranks of the Brotherhood and served as an independent in the movement’s parliamentary bloc from 2000 to 2005.
Hailing from the Islamist movement’s political wing – the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – Morsi was selected as the party’s presidential candidate in April 2012 after its deputy general guide, millionaire businessman Khairat al-Shater, was disqualified.
In his first speech to the Egyptian people, he deployed the language of national unity and reform of the security state, in an appeal to the sentiments expressed in the 2011 revolutionary slogan of “bread, freedom and social justice.”
Under Morsi, Egypt was a democracy – albeit a young and imperfect one.
There was more than a modicum of political freedom: over 40 political parties vied for influence, and a sizable anti-Brotherhood coalition, the National Salvation Front (NSF), formed in late 2012 to challenge his government.
In November 2012, Morsi brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, reassuring the international community that Egypt would continue its role as mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Shortly after came a move that marked the beginning of the end of his rule.
On November 22, 2012, he issued a constitutional declaration, appointed a new public prosecutor, and made presidential decrees immune to judicial oversight – what many viewed as a consolidation of dictatorial powers.
While Morsi claimed these measures were needed to safeguard the revolution’s transition to a constitutional democracy, he was branded as “Egypt’s new pharaoh”.
As a constitutional crisis fermented, the army was provided with a window of opportunity to present itself as “the savior” of the Egyptian people.
But the army was not the only counterrevolutionary force in opposition to the president.
Even with Mubarak gone, remnants of his regime remained solidly intact. A nexus of media figures, government loyalists and opposition officials were ideologically united in anti-Brotherhood unison.
Much of it was an effort to sow popular discord against Morsi and connect him – and by extension the Muslim Brotherhood – to economic and social chaos. Media narratives consistently tried to paint him as a dangerous Islamist that did not have Egypt’s interests at heart.
In addition to a propaganda campaign, Morsi endured an institutional onslaught that was committed to undermining his presidency at every turn, and ultimately stifled any democratic transition.
Gridlock in government stymied any progress, as bureaucrats loyal to the former regime refused to implement presidential policies and opposition figures rejected compromises.
The judiciary increasingly appeared beholden to the military, as rulings were issued that violated basic norms of justice.
When there was an attempt to devolve economic power from Mubarak-era kleptocrats and foreign companies, he was charged with tanking the economy. Artificial energy shortages were generated to stir further discontent.
In April 2013, the Tamarod campaign launched with the goal to call for early elections. Evidence later revealed how the movement operated with the support of the military and security agencies along with former Mubarak regime loyalists.
Leaked audio recordings between the Egyptian military brass disclosed that the campaign was funded by the UAE, in the most explicit case of a foreign government bankrolling counterrevolution.
With oligarchs pouring resources into fomenting dissent, Tamarod mobilised millions on the street to mark the first anniversary of the day Morsi took office. 48 hours later the military toppled his government on July 3, after the constitution was suspended and the formation of a technocratic interim government was announced.
In hindsight, a number of strategic blunders could be laid at the feet of Morsi and the Brotherhood, particularly their failure to forge a broad revolutionary coalition and a misplaced faith early on in the military and security apparatus out of political expediency.
While Morsi was far from perfect – his government deserves credit for ushering in a democratic opening, however brief, of relative political freedom and openness for Egypt that didn’t exist previously.
Far from lacking political space to manoeuvre, opposition groups had recourse to limit any potential power play Morsi they might have accused him of.
Morsi’s presidency was governed by the 2012 constitution, which limited the presidential powers and imposed two four-year term limits. Article 152 would have allowed for impeachment with a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
Given the Brotherhood’s long history of repression at the hands of the Egyptian state, there was a strong institutional impetus for not allowing the Brotherhood to succeed. In the years that followed Morsi’s removal, the Brotherhood sustained a brutal crackdown and was declared a terrorist group by the Sisi government.
Morsi’s removal in a coup d’état in 2013 and subsequent imprisonment ushered in the autocratic rule of Abdel Fattah el Sisi, who has served as president since 2014.
Initially sentenced to death in 2015 for his role in leading a prison break during 2011 anti-Mubarak demonstrations before being overturned, Morsi remained jailed on charges related to the killing of protesters in 2012 and alleged espionage on behalf of Hamas and Qatar.
The old-regime network embedded in Egypt’s political system, with its staying power in the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the media, along with networks that could draw upon internally and externally funded efforts, makes it hard to envision any other oppositional political figure succeeding in place of Morsi.
Characterisations of Morsi’s tenure as a “chaotic period” miss the mark if it fails to take account of the counterrevolutionary forces aligned against him during a pivotal moment of Egypt’s democratic transition.
When Morsi died a year ago, Egypt’s hope for a democratic future symbolically died along with him.