Egypt has a good claim to be considered the oldest country in the world. It has not been independent the whole time, but it has been a distinct polity for more than five thousand years. And in all of that time, as far as history records it has had precisely one democratically chosen leader, Mohamed Morsi, elected president in 2012.
But Morsi did not enjoy the position for long. In July 2013, a few days after the first anniversary of his election, he was overthrown in a military coup. He was then arrested and charged with a variety of contrived offences, and it was in the course of one of those trials that he collapsed on Monday and died of an apparent heart attack, at the age of 67.
While he deserves our sympathy, it is fair to say that Morsi was not a good president. He governed more in the interests of his political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, than of the country as a whole, and secular or non-Muslim Egyptians soon began to fear that their place in the country was under threat. He also had little success in reviving Egypt’s economy.
As a result, the coup that removed him seemed initially to have strong popular support. But army commander Abdel El-Sisi, who was the driving force in the new regime and ultimately took over as president, soon made it clear that he was no democrat.
It’s possible that Sisi would have won a democratic election, but he chose not to take the chance. No genuine opposition was permitted; the Brotherhood was banned and its leaders jailed, protests were violently suppressed, and only tame opponents ran against Sisi in the “elections” of 2014 and 2018.
Morsi’s overthrow was one of the events that marked the end of the Arab Spring. Egypt is the leading power in the Arab world, and a genuinely democratic Egypt would have been an enormously beneficial influence throughout the region.
But the implications also go beyond the Middle East. Sisi has become an ally of authoritarian power in general; a favorite of Donald Trump, a collaborator of Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu, and a reliable opponent of human rights and democratic reform.
So Morsi looks rather better in hindsight than he did at the time. Many of the problems he faced were not of his own making, including probably the biggest – the country’s lack of any established culture of democracy or constitutionalism.
There was also a more specific problem that the media rarely talk about, namely the nature of Morsi’s election in 2012.
Morsi led with just 24.8% of the vote in the first round of a two-round election, only narrowly ahead of Ahmed Shafik, identified more with the old authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak, who had 23.7%. Voters who would have preferred a more liberal or secular alternative therefore had to choose between them in the second round.
Understandably, but with evident reluctance, they chose Morsi, and he won with 51.7%. As I put it at the time:
Morsi’s problem is that he was the first choice of only a quarter of the electorate – an electorate that was (and obviously still is) polarised and with little experience of democracy. That put him in an unenviable position from the very start, and he hasn’t handled it well. His Muslim Brotherhood, despite winning an election, never represented the majority of the population, but he seems not to have been as conscious of that as he should have.
Electoral systems matter. A less polarising candidate might not have so quickly antagonised the military, and would have had a broader base of support to stand up to it.
Instead, Egypt’s experiment with democracy was a brief one. But the lessons of the Arab Spring have not been forgotten; the recent carnage in neighboring Sudan is yet another demonstration that the Arab masses are determined, one way or another, to gain control of their destiny.
One day that demand will return to Egypt, and Morsi’s reputation may then undergo a rehabilitation. But for now, his lonely distinction as his country’s only elected leader seems pretty safe.
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