From palace to prison: 1 year of Morsi’s rule

Yousef Saba
17 Min Read
Former President, Mohamed Morsi (AFP File Photo)

Exactly three years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was sworn in as Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian president before the land’s Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC).

A year later, mass gatherings took to the streets demanding his removal. Today, Morsi remains in prison and faces a long list of charges against him, ranging from espionage, to inciting murder, to insulting the judiciary.

The ex-president recently had a preliminary death sentence handed to him, and is now awaiting his fate, pending a possible appeals process. He was also handed a life sentence in another case, and faces a possible death penalty in at least one other case.

Morsi was elected by 51.73% of the electorate who went to the polls, beating his opponent Ahmed Shafiq by a narrow margin of about 2.5%. Shafiq was the last prime minister under former president Hosni Mubarak, appointed during the uprising against the Mubarak regime.

When running, Morsi was the chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood formed in the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution that deposed Mubarak.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s first choice for their presidential candidate, however, was not Morsi. They initially fielded Khairat El-Shater, after previously stating they would not seek the presidency at all. El-Shater is the Deputy Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, and is widely speculated to be the real decision-maker and financier of the Islamist group.

El-Shater was barred from the race for having previously been convicted and jailed for criminal charges under Mubarak. According to the electoral laws, ex-prisoners were not allowed to run for the presidency.

Many questions were raised when Morsi was the runner-up candidate, as he himself had been arrested during the uprising, and later escaped in a massive prison break, for which he is now on trial. The electoral commission’s decision was speculated to have been due to the fact that Morsi was never convicted, but was jailed as a response to the uprising, along with thousands of others.

The elections marked the beginning of a series of divisions among the Egyptian population, between Islamist and secular, and between those for and against the former ruling elite.

The Brotherhood was able to seize victory partially due to its popularity in Egyptian society at the time, particularly among the poor. Their image was one of a group that provided social services, including healthcare, education, and charity, amongst others. Many also sympathised with them due to successive crackdowns they have historically faced, saying that they were never given a fair chance to govern.

As a former Mubarak minister, Shafiq was viewed as a tool to reinstate governance to Mubarak’s elite, and what is referred to as the “deep state”.

This polarised the Egyptian population, between those who believed Morsi would Islamise the state and that Shafiq was the guarantor of security, and hence stability; and those who believed Morsi and the Brotherhood were the only real chance for true democracy.

With grassroots support, and hatred towards any figures associated with Mubarak and his regime amongst the population, the Muslim Brotherhood had key advantages to come out ahead in the elections. Nevertheless, allegations of bribery from their side were rampant. In tandem, similar allegations were also directed at the other camp.

A little more than two weeks before Morsi took office, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) dissolved the People’s Assembly, the lower chamber of parliament. Both chambers of parliament were dominated by Islamists, who were part of two alliances. One was headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the other by the Salafist Al-Nour party. The court ruled that the elections laws that governed the elections were unconstitutional. The lower chamber is the more powerful in Egyptian parliament.

After Morsi was elected, he announced his infamous “Renaissance Project”, which had ambitious objectives to improve the lives of Egyptians. Morsi set out a number of promises that he pledged he would fulfil in his first 100 days in office. These plans largely failed to materialise, sparking feelings of popular discontent with his performance.

Eight days after taking office, Morsi attempted to circumvent the SCC, the highest court in the country, and reconvene the dissolved lower chamber of parliament. The move became the first in a series of legislative decisions that sparked outrage among political parties, movements and the general public. The court insisted that its ruling must be obeyed, and Morsi eventually backed down.

This however created another strategic issue, in that the dissolved chamber had already chosen an assembly that was in the process of drafting a new constitution for the Arab republic.

Negative sentiments worsened due to lack of accountability by the regime of former Mubarak officials, and members of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Many revolutionary forces and youth movements called for the investigation of crimes committed by the SCAF during their 18-month transitional rule following Mubarak’s fall.

The most prominent accusations levelled against the military council were its response to demonstrations, and its violence against protesters. An incident in October 2011, known as the Maspero massacre, was dominated by Egyptian Copts protesting discrimination against them, in response to the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt, claimed to have been built without a licence.

The events resulted in 28 deaths and 212 injuries. The military and security services were never investigated for the incident.

On 2 August, Morsi appointed his first cabinet, headed by Hisham Qandil. Public frustration grew on 12 August 2013, when Morsi awarded Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi the Order of the Nile, the highest honour in Egypt, and sent him and General Sami Anan into retirement. Tantawi headed the Supreme Council of Armed Forces and was Mubarak’s long-time Minister of Defence, whilst Anan was his deputy. Morsi also stripped the SCAF of its legislative power, granting it to himself as part of the move.

Morsi replaced Tantawi with now-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Al-Sisi was a little-known general at the time, and speculation swirled that he was an Islamist, or at least an Islamist-sympathiser. People regarded the move as an attempt to align the military’s leadership with the Muslim Brotherhood’s political agenda, which people were growing increasingly wary and fearful of.

This assumption of legislative power also came with the scrapping of the SCAF’s constitutional declaration, which was approved in a public referendum, and replacing it with his own. Morsi also appointed senior judge and known Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser Mahmoud Mekki as his vice president. Morsi’s decree also stipulated that he had the power to appoint a new constitutional assembly, should the existing one fail or be dissolved.

By September, Salafists and other hardline Islamist groups were widely viewed as becoming increasingly empowered, with various religious edicts calling for violence and similar occurrences passing without admonition.

In October, following a failed conviction of alleged perpetrators of the infamous “Battle of the Camels” by the prosecution, Morsi attempted to remove Prosecutor General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud from his post. The post of prosecutor general is immune from such actions under Egyptian law.  A standoff between the presidency and the judiciary ensued, ending in Morsi reversing his decision. In this month, the case on the legality of the constitutional assembly was referred to the SCC.

On 18-21 November, much of the seculars in the constitutional assembly walked out, saying the Islamists wanted to Islamise Egypt.

Despite mounting criticism on a wide range of topics, the proverbial nail in the coffin for Morsi came with his constitutional declaration of 22 November 2012. The declaration subsequently placed all his decisions beyond judicial oversight, and stipulated that the upper chamber of parliament (the Shura Council) and constitutional drafting assembly were immune to being dissolved by any court. He also sacked Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud and replaced him with his own Prosecutor General, Talaat Abdullah.

The move was deemed an attempt by the Brotherhood to usurp power, while Morsi defended his actions by claiming he was safeguarding the revolution and its achievements from Mubarak’s elite, and proclaimed he was leading Egypt on a path to “freedom and democracy”.

Large popular protests were organised and gathered outside the Ittihadeya palace, Tahrir Square and other locations. The palace sit-ins were attacked by armed thugs, many of whom were bearded men, as seen in video footage. Many blamed the Brotherhood for the violence, and charged that they were fuelling divisions among Egyptians. Many factions declared a nationwide strike, most notably the judiciary and the prosecution, in response to the decree.

The protests did not die down until Morsi repealed the declaration. He only did so, however, after what many viewed as the forcing of the constitution through a referendum process. The constitutional committee held a marathon session that went into the night to complete drafting the document during the crisis. It was then quickly put to a public referendum on 15 December 2012, which saw a turnout of less than 33%, and an approval rate of 63.8%.

Once the constitution was passed, Morsi repealed the declaration, replacing it with a new one that maintained the effects the previous one had produced, but stripping himself and parliament of their extra-judicial power.

On 25 January 2013, the second anniversary of the revolution, mass protests erupted in Tahrir Square once again. Outrage also arose out of Port Said following a court decision to execute 21 men over their roles in the Port Said stadium massacre. Several deaths resulted from the chaos. The government was reported to have lost control of the port city two days later. The protests spread throughout several Egyptian cities, and violence regularly ensued, resulting in several deaths.

In February, protests continued and clashes with riot police escalated. In this period, accusations of police brutality were rampant, and criticism of Morsi’s tolerance for the security forces’ excessive use of force was vocal. Video footage of a man being stripped, beaten with batons and dragged caused a major outcry amongst the population, and prompted the then-minister of culture to resign in protest.

Deaths due to protest violence continued to mount in March, and upheaval in Port Said reemerged. In this month, an arrest warrant was issued against popular Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef for allegedly insulting Islam and Morsi on his popular weekly TV programme. The satirist turned himself in, was interrogated, and later released on bail. His order for arrest was seen as an attempt by Morsi to silence dissent and critical voices.

On April 28, the Tamarod (Rebel) movement was founded by five activists. The movements was a grassroots effort to collect more than 15 million signatures to withdraw confidence from Morsi and demand that he step down (he won the elections with 13 million votes). Tamarod also planned to organise and stage massive protests on the first anniversary of his inauguration, on 30 June 2013.

Another topic of discontent with Morsi’s rule was the ongoing militant insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. The conflict was seen as being exacerbated by Morsi’s purported leniency on Gaza’s ruling Hamas – a group with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Moreover, power cuts in the summer of 2013 reached unprecedented peaks. Electricity outages in Egypt are quite common, and are known to be more frequent in the summers due to the increased fuel consumption by air conditioners. However, the outages that summer were the longest and most frequent in recent Egyptian history. There were also major shortages of fuel, where people would have to queue for hours at petrol stations to fuel their vehicles. Some speculated that the military and the “deep state” intentionally orchestrated the cuts and shortages to fuel discontent.

Along with this, unemployment levels continued to rise and the economy was at its slowest in years.

On 29 June, Tamarod announced it had collected 22 million signatures of citizens demanding that Morsi step down. The announcement, along with a long-standing call to demonstrate on the first anniversary of the then-president’s assumption of power, appeared to motivate the populace to act. On 30 June 2013, Egypt erupted in massive protests against Morsi and the Brotherhood. Rival protests had already been set up three days prior in two squares by Islamists.

The military was quick to react. On 1 July, then-general and head of the SCAF Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi released an audio announcement aired on state television. He declared that the administration had 48 hours to reconcile with all national forces and meet the demands of the protesters.

Morsi appeared in a speech on 2 July, in which he was defiant and insisted that he would remain in office, and that he would defend “legitimacy” with his life. The following day, Al-Sisi appeared on national television with prominent political and religious figures present. He announced that Morsi had failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people and was under arrest at an undisclosed location. He also declared the constitution suspended, the upper chamber of parliament dissolved and announced that head of SCC Judge Adly Mansour would be sworn in as acting president the following day.

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Yousef Saba is an aspiring multimedia journalist. He is studying Broadcast Journalism and International Politics at The Pennsylvania State University.