Morsi’s death in Egypt puts diminished Muslim Brotherhood back in spotlight

Egypt's ousted Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, sits in a defendant cage at the police academy courthouse in Cairo in May 2014.
(Tarek el-Gabbas / Associated Press)

The dramatic courtroom collapse and death of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, has provided a stark reminder of how much his now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement has been reduced since the military abruptly removed him from office in 2013.

The 67-year-old California-educated Morsi, who died of an apparent heart attack last Monday, suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure and liver disease. His supporters and rights groups accuse authorities of failing to provide him with adequate medical treatment during his six-year incarceration, spent in prolonged solitary confinement. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights think tank called his death “murder by neglect.”

Muslim Brotherhood members “are very angry,” said Mohamed Soudan, a senior member of the group’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. But there’s “no way” they can protest the circumstances of Morsi’s death in Egypt, added Soudan, who is in exile in the United Kingdom.


“It’s very, very difficult,” Soudan said, “because of the repression.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, a 91-year-old grassroots Islamist movement, briefly occupied the highest echelons of power after its candidate, Morsi, won what are widely regarded as the country’s only free elections in 2012, after the massive Arab Spring uprising that toppled longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak.

A year later, the Egyptian army unceremoniously ousted Morsi and made the Muslim Brotherhood an unrelenting target. Yet no matter how diminished and divided, the Muslim Brotherhood still makes the Egyptian government nervous, as evidenced by the aftermath of Morsi’s death.

Security agencies prevented Morsi’s family from burying him in his hometown of Sharqiya, his son said. Instead, his remains were quietly laid to rest around 5 a.m.Tuesday, amid heavy security, in a cemetery in east Cairo. The press was denied access to the short funeral.

Reporting of his death in Egyptian media was strikingly muted and carefully controlled by the government.

Egyptians learned of Morsi’s demise through a terse statement on state television. There was no follow-up coverage Monday evening.

The next day, nearly every newspaper reported the story using the same 42 words that were sent by officials to news editors via the messaging platform WhatsApp, the independent news website Mada Masr reported. Morsi was not referred to as the former president and the short news report was placed on the inside pages of the papers.

On TV, an anchor for the Extra News station, reading from a teleprompter, used the exact words, adding at the end, “This was sent by a Samsung device.”

Morsi’s election, after the nearly three-decade military dictatorship of Mubarak, fueled hopes of a new, democratic era for Egypt.

But Morsi proved polarizing and was accused of authoritarian tendencies and a strict religious agenda. After mass demonstrations in the summer of 2013, he was booted out by the armed forces led by Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi — who replaced him.

A harsh crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood’s activities has forced the group underground. Tens of thousands of its members, including senior leaders, are in prison while others are in exile in Turkey or Britain. At least 800 died in August 2013 after security forces raided protest sit-in camps of mainly Morsi supporters soon after his ouster.

The Muslim Brotherhood is now “fragmented and weakened geographically, generationally and hierarchically,” said Sumita Pahwa, an assistant professor of politics at Scripps College in Claremont.

“The senior leadership is in jail and broadly urging caution, the youth are either angry at what they see as the failures of the leaders and attracted to more militant tactics, or convinced political ambition was a mistake altogether and focused on preaching,” Pahwa said.

The Muslim Brotherhood has experienced rounds of repression and arrests since its founding in Egypt in 1928. For many years, the Muslim Sisters kept the movement going in the absence of the men, but its members too haven’t been spared jail under Sisi.

An underground network of Muslim Brotherhood members still exists in Egypt, said Soudan, the U.K.-based member, but there’s no way they will be able to operate openly and legally anytime soon. “Sisi hates the Muslim Brotherhood so much,” he said.

In recent years, Sisi’s grip on power has been further tightened and his rule extended to 2030, after amendments to the constitution were by approved by the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, and subsequently through a referendum two months ago.

Also in April, President Trump, after lobbying from Sisi, said he would consider designating the Muslim Brotherhood, which has affiliate groups and allies across the region, a terrorist organization. Lawmaker and government loyalist Tarek Khouly said the bleak outlook for the movement wasn’t solely because of the approach of the Egyptian administration. “The people do not support them,” he insisted.

But public support for the group is hard to measure. Press freedoms have been battered under Sisi’s rule and the media are largely under state control.

Ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s death stirs memories of onetime democracy hopes »

On the streets of Cairo, looks of unease are all too common among people asked for opinions on politics, especially on topics as sensitive — or taboo — as the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the central Cairo neighborhood of Sayeda Zeinab, for instance, no one was willing to comment on Morsi’s death when approached. One man who appeared to be in his 40s explained the situation bluntly: “We can’t speak about this subject, the state won’t let us.”

The Muslim Brotherhood is definitely “enemy No. 1” in the government’s eyes, said opposition leader Mohamed Anwar Sadat, the nephew of Egypt’s third president, who was assassinated in 1981. Despite this, history has shown that “the Muslim Brotherhood as an ideology will never die,” he added.

Morsi’s passing is likely to be used by Muslim Brotherhood leadership to resurrect his image as a martyr, said Pahwa, the analyst.

The group’s leaders will be hoping his death “can inspire more sympathy in an Egyptian population worn down by repression and economic suffering today than in 2013, when his arrest drew less outrage outside Islamist circles,” she said.

Islam is a special correspondent.