On Monday 17 June, the former President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, collapsed and died in court while on trial for espionage against the Egyptian state. Morsi, who suffered from diabetes and chronic kidney and liver conditions, had been imprisoned since 2013, when his presidency was overthrown by one of the largest mass movements in human history.
While in prison, the former leader of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party had reportedly been kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, with limited access to proper nutrition, necessary medical treatment, legal counsel and family visits. There is no question that the inhumane conditions of his incarceration have led him to an early grave at the age of 67.
The sudden demise of a major protagonist in the period of revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt between 2011 and 2014, while in the custody of the Egyptian regime, has understandably created a news sensation around the world. Morsi’s death shines a spotlight once again on the events of the Egyptian Revolution, the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and the current practices of President Sisi’s repressive state apparatus. Commentary from various sections of the bourgeois media has included a re-appraisal of Morsi’s presidency. It is worth clarifying, then, where we as Marxists should stand on the treatment of Morsi, what this event means for the current situation in Egypt, and our stance towards the Muslim Brotherhood.
Liberal hypocrisy, and the man who would be pharaoh
Many liberal media outlets – including the New York Times, the Guardian and BBC News – have published articles lamenting the death of Egypt’s first civilian, democratically-elected president. The Guardian even ended their story by quoting one of Morsi’s former advisors, who claimed he was “a symbol for many Egyptians”.
In fact, the election that brought him to power was scarcely any more free and fair than the farcical charades carried out since by the Sisi regime, which these same publications bemoan.
Firstly, the Brotherhood and the old regime collaborated on a wide range of issues. Seeing that the army leaders of the SCAF could no longer hold onto power following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, they proceeded to implement a new constitution. This constitution’s electoral laws undeniably favoured the Muslim Brotherhood, a party that had for decades been prepped as a loyal, semi-opposition to the regime.
Secondly, the first round of the presidential elections in particular saw left candidate Hamdeen Sabahi eliminated at the expense of the old regime’s prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, despite having placed first in Cairo, Alexandria and other urban centres. There were clear signs of vote-rigging and stolen ballot papers aimed at tipping the balance and excluding Sabbahi from the last round. While Shafik was the main candidate of the state bureaucracy and the old ruling elite, they did not see Morsi as a safe pair of hands, compared to Sabbahi, who had a revolutionary mass movement behind him.
Thirdly, while purging certain elements at the top of the military, and thereby alienating certain layers within the old state, he appointed his successor, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who rules Egypt today, as his Defence Minister, replacing previously powerful figures.
If Morsi is a symbol for many Egyptians, it is of everything that was hated about the Muslim Brotherhood in power. Many times during the year of Brotherhood rule, armed Islamists gangs allied with the police in attacking peaceful protesters, who were objecting to deepening counter-revolutionary measures.
In November 2012, Morsi introduced a law that declared him the Executor of Irreversible Decisions and Laws, giving him unmatched powers. He also declared that the Constituent Assembly (at that time, a wholly undemocratic puppet body of the Muslim Brotherhood) could not be overturned, and rushed through a new constitution explicitly elevating the authority of Sharia law in Egypt. Mass protests erupted as a result of Morsi’s declaration, leading to major clashes between protesters; and the police and Brotherhood supporters. Morsi personally ordered the police to break up one protest outside the presidential palace, but they refused. Islamists were then sent in, who captured and brutally beat scores of demonstrators, including children, bound their hands and held them down on the pavement overnight until they stated they had been bribed by enemies of Egypt to be there. Tens of people were reportedly killed, as in countless other cases of Brotherhood-inspired violence against the Egyptian Revolution.
The BBC News article on Morsi’s death mentions in passing that he was on trial for murder in relation to this incident, simply to point out that he had an earlier death penalty overturned on appeal. Rather than recount the power grab that led to the protests, the article instead chooses to point out that Morsi was sometimes praised for his oratory skills. In general, Morsi’s move to concentrate power in his hands, and the counter-revolutionary violence carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood during his presidency, scarcely get a mention among the reports and obituaries. At best, these facts are relegated beneath eulogies for the democratic will of the Egyptian people, and condemnations of keeping such an important man in cruel confinement – while on trial for murder.
The Egyptian people, for their part, don’t seem to have much sympathy for Morsi’s untimely end. Only in Morsi’s hometown Al-Edwa, in a backward rural province of the Nile Delta, was there any protest of note, even among Brotherhood supporters. The party has been forced deep underground since 2013, but such a weak showing also demonstrates the extent to which its active base has ebbed away. Most Egyptians have more pressing concerns, such as the periodic price rises caused by cuts to fuel subsidies, or youth unemployment rates reaching catastrophic levels. Not that any of this is of concern for our so-called democrats.
They highlight the harsh treatment Morsi faced in prison. But when it comes to abuse at the hands of the state, most Egyptians realise they could suffer far worse torture than Morsi ever did – and for far less than an attempted power grab, or inciting Islamist militias to assault revolutionary youths. In some cases, waving a rainbow flag at a concert can result in an inspection of your anal cavity by police officers, before being thrown in jail. Meanwhile, criticising sexual harassment on social media can result in public humiliation and conviction for posing a threat to national security.
In Britain, following Morsi’s death, our noble humanitarian, Tory MP Crispin Blunt, stepped up his long-running campaign to have the Egyptian authorities’ treatment of the former president investigated. Funnily enough, he has nothing to say about the 60,000 political prisoners currently being held by the Egyptian state – many of whom are completely innocent of any crime. As Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee between 2015 and 2017, Britain’s friendly relations with Sisi’s regime; and the Tories’ apparent support for the Egyptian President, were seemingly not an issue for Blunt either. The hypocrisy, lies and double standards boggle the mind!
This hypocrisy indicates the disingenuous nature of much of the concern shown by bourgeois politicians and the media about human rights. In fact, their worry is that Sisi’s regime has become too heavy-handed for its own good, the good of the Egyptian ruling class, and for the ruling classes internationally (in the United States in particular). They sense a danger of the regime reigniting the Egyptian Revolution with one false move; and the manslaughter of a former opposition leader and president is enough to put them on edge. Their newfound admiration for pluralism and democratic credentials, apparently embodied the presidency of Morsi, is also a reflection of their alarm at the entrenchment of Sisi’s dictatorship. It is clearly a weak regime that cannot be trusted to handle the stabilisation of a country whose economy is mired in turmoil and whose political situation is still fraught with tension. In a sense, bourgeois strategists and commentators have been reminded by Morsi’s death that the Egyptian ruling class has already used up the one alternative political outlet it had at its disposal.
The Muslim Brotherhood
The political organisation to which Morsi belonged, the Muslim Brotherhood, was first allowed to stand in the Egyptian elections during the 2005 parliamentary elections. This was the first time a party officially opposed to the military regime had been allowed to run, and it was a concession which – along with the Mahalla textile strikes in 2006 – effectively signalled the beginning of the end for the Mubarak dictatorship. But even before 2005, Brotherhood candidates were allowed to stand as independents and the party existed semi-legally, in periodic conflict with the state authorities.
Throughout the history of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has been the foremost party of reaction. It is the only party that has managed to mobilise the religious conservative establishment, peasant and middle-class layers against the working-class and revolutionary masses in the cities. It represents a junior wing of the Egyptian capitalist class, which is far less of a threat to the interests of the big capitalists than the revolutionary masses.
For years, the regime cultivated the Brotherhood to be able to step in, in case of an imminent threat to its position. By allowing it to stand, the state created a loyal opposition, able to channel rising revolutionary moods down “safe” capitalist channels.
While the base of the Brotherhood was pulled into the revolutionary movement from the beginning, its leadership only joined in when the fall of Mubarak was evident, and continued to sabotage the revolution at every turn.
Faced with a revolutionary movement that could not be stopped by repression, the Brotherhood was brought in to divert the movement down a more controllable channel in order to avert the downfall of the whole regime. They were acting as a last line of defence for Egyptian capitalism, a role that they played to perfection.
And exactly because the Brotherhood is a bourgeois party, it was unable to solve any of the problems posed by the revolution. Wages, living standards and public welfare continued their decline, alongside widespread nepotism and corruption. The only real change was the facial hair of some of those directing the exploitation of the working masses. In the year following the election of Morsi, this led to a steady rise of clashes between the masses on one side; and the Brotherhood and the state apparatus on the other.
At the same time, a conflict erupted within the ruling class between the Brotherhood, which was trying to gain access to parts of the state apparatus and the economy; and the traditional ruling elite, which was defending its position. A warning sign was when Morsi removed a clause in the constitution making the president answerable to the army. His attempt to raise the Brotherhood-dominated Constituent Assembly above any other judicial body was also a step too far.
While the old elite was uneasy with the Brotherhood muscling their way into parts of the state, they were even more terrified of the revolution. Thus, in many cases, they collaborated with the Brotherhood against the masses in the streets. On 25 January 2013, for instance, the army, police and the Muslim Brotherhood jointly carried out a deadly suppression of anti-Brotherhood mass protests throughout the country; and imposing curfews in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said.
The repression didn’t stop the radicalisation on the streets, however, and within a year of him coming to power, the Egyptian masses were ready to get rid of Morsi.
Seeing that the mood on the streets was yet again reaching fever pitch, the army and state apparatus began to move into opposition against Morsi. Aside from fearing Brotherhood influence within the state and the economy, the old elite no longer trusted that the party could save the regime. That is the key reason why they hung Morsi out to dry for the crimes he committed on behalf of the ruling class as a whole. Seeing the rise of the unstoppable revolutionary movement of millions of workers, poor and youth, the old elite were quick to abandon the Brotherhood, with sections actually putting on the clothes of the revolution, just as Morsi and co. had done in 2011.
Tragically, the leaders of the 2013 movement were not aware of the class nature of the revolution and the need to wrest economic and state power from the old ruling class. Instead, they handed power back to the same generals who had been oppressing them for years. Stepping into the power vacuum, Al-Sisi then used the revolutionary credentials given to him by these leaders to crush the hated Brotherhood, as a pretext for consolidating his rule and moving towards increasingly repressive measures.
The main problem for the Egyptian and Arab revolutions was that, while removing the head of state, they left state and economic power in the hands of the old ruling elite, which could then slowly re-establish its rule. The capitalist system remained intact, and through it, all the ills of capitalism, which have led to so much suffering for the masses.
Nevertheless, nothing has been solved from the point of view of the ruling class. Their problem now is that all of the economic and social contradictions that led to the revolution in the first place have only deepened, and are bound to come to a head again at some stage. Mass repression as a means of maintaining order will turn into its opposite, as it did under Mubarak, and become the whip that drives a new revolutionary movement forward. At that point, the decrepit state of the Egyptian bourgeoisie, as embodied in the person of Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, will be laid bare for all to see. In spite of everything, revolution still lurks just beneath the surface in Egypt. If the masses have not moved yet, it is not due to a lack of will or confidence, but because they see no reason to remove a reactionary regime if it is only to be replaced with another, equally reactionary regime. Nevertheless, the movement will undoubtedly surface again sooner or later. But this time, the ruling class won’t have the Muslim Brotherhood as an escape route, through which to divert and disorientate the path of the revolution.
While revolutionary tide rises in North Africa, Sisi ratifies dictatorship
At least from an international point of view, the death of Morsi, in full public view, appears to be yet another blunder on the part of Sisi’s regime. It comes not long after Sisi managed to pass into law, via referendum, sweeping amendments to the constitution, stripping away some of the last democratic concessions won by the Egyptian Revolution. Sisi has removed the two-term limit on his presidency, meaning that he could now remain in office until at least 2030. He also now has the power to appoint the judiciary, just as Mubarak did. The amendments were rushed through parliament in April before being put to the public in a matter of days, with absolutely no campaign build-up.
According to the state media, 88.83 percent voted ‘yes’ to Sisi’s amendments on a 44.33 percent turnout. The turnout figure in particular seems highly unlikely, as it is higher than the turnout of last year’s presidential election, which saw a lengthy campaign encouraging voting. However, this referendum was apparently characterised by far more voter intimidation, with open threats made against non-participants by security forces. Hundreds of oppositionists who dared to campaign for ‘no’ in public were arrested, and Hamdeen Sabahi is now being investigated by the state prosecutor.
This approach is typical of a surge in repressive acts by the state since last year’s presidential election. A group of 15-and-16-year-old high school students were arrested earlier this month for protesting that they couldn’t take their exams as the state hadn’t paid the internet bill in the exam hall. According to one human rights report, 160 political prisoners were arrested between February and March this year, while there was a round of arrests of opposition leaders in August last year.
Sisi has achieved what Morsi failed to do. He has cemented his position as the New Pharaoh of Egypt, virtually unaccountable to anyone by law, and – for the time being – capable of silencing any opposition almost at will. But these measures belie the instability of Sisi’s regime, which motivates him. In recent months, we have seen something of a ‘new Arab Spring’, with revolutions deposing dictatorships in Algeria and Sudan, and mass protests over cuts to fuel subsidies in Tunisia. Once the Egyptian masses recover their bearings and get back to their feet, they will show that they are capable of deposing another dictator themselves.
For now, the real tragedy is not the premature death of one criminal among many in the Egyptian ruling class, but the rising toll of dead and imprisoned innocents among the Egyptian youth and working class. The greatest crime here is that it was not the Egyptian masses themselves handing out justice to their class enemy.
A New York Times article made one valid point, when it pointed out that, while the Brotherhood gangsters have been sentenced to death or are rotting in prison, Mubarak and his sons walk free. This is a burning injustice, not against the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Egyptian working class. Their retribution will come, when the rotten regime is brought down once and for all, and the masses decide how it should pay for its crimes.