Mar­tyred Morsi would be blow to democ­racy


On Tues­day, an Egyp­tian court up­held the death penalty for Mo­hammed Morsi, Egypt’s first demo­crat­i­cally elected pres­i­dent. Morsi was first sen­tenced to death last month, along with more than 100 co- de­fen­dants, for tak­ing part in an al­leged prison break. It was the latest in a se­ries of sham tri­als and mass death sen­tences de­creed by the ju­di­ciary since the Egyp­tian mil­i­tary ousted Morsi in a coup in July 2013.

If the for­mer pres­i­dent is ul­ti­mately hanged, it would be a grave mis­car­riage of jus­tice that would make Morsi the first leader of the Mus­lim Brother­hood to as­sume the pres­i­dency of an Arab coun­try a mar­tyr for mil­lions through­out the Mus­lim world.

Be­yond Morsi’s fate, the mass death sen­tences part of Egypt’s wider crack­down on the Brother­hood and other op­po­nents of the mil­i­tary regime send a dan­ger­ous sig­nal to Is­lamists through­out the re­gion: The only way to achieve po­lit­i­cal power is through vi­o­lence.

The Brother­hood’s ex­pe­ri­ence over the years in Egypt shows that au­thor­i­tar­ian and sec­u­lar forces, which of­ten fare poorly at the bal­lot box, will mo­bi­lize to un­der­mine the Is­lamists be­fore they have had a chance to rule. Egypt can­not be a vi­able, plu­ral­is­tic democ­racy with­out the Brother­hood’s par­tic­i­pa­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, the army’s coup against Morsi and the Brother­hood’s fail­ure at gov­ern­ing lent am­mu­ni­tion to pun­dits in the West who per­pet­u­ate the cen­turies-old lazy, and racist, trope that Is­lam is in­com­pat­i­ble with democ­racy and moder­nity.

When it de­posed Morsi in 2013, the mil­i­tary in­sisted it was act­ing on the will of the Egyp­tian peo­ple, who had grown dis­en­chanted with his clumsy rule and dis­as­trous eco­nomic poli­cies. But the army didn’t stop there: It ar­rested Morsi along with thou­sands of other Brother­hood lead­ers and ac­tivists, shut down media out­lets sym­pa­thetic to the Is­lamists and banned the Brother­hood from Egyp­tian po­lit­i­cal life en­tirely.

Then, in Au­gust 2013, the army and se­cu­rity forces opened fire on thou­sands of Morsi’s sup­port­ers who were en­gaged in a peace­ful sit- in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, killing at least 1,000 peo­ple. Hu­man Rights Watch called the mas­sacre “one of the world’s largest killings of de­mon­stra­tors in a sin­gle day in re­cent history.”

The re­pres­sion has been more in­tense than that of for­mer pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak, who was top­pled by a pop­u­lar upris­ing in Jan­uary 2011. Many of Egypt’s sec­u­lar and lib­eral ac­tivists ini­tially stood by as the mil­i­tary moved to dis­man­tle the Brother­hood, and some were ac­tively en­cour­ag­ing the crack­down. Pre­dictably, af­ter tar­get­ing the Is­lamists, the mil­i­tary ex­panded its re­pres­sion against sec­u­lar­ists and any­one else who crit­i­cized its ac­tions.

Ab­del-Fat­tah el-Sissi, who was Morsi’s de­fense min­is­ter and the coup’s main in­sti­ga­tor, is now pres­i­dent. He has re­stored many el­e­ments of mil­i­tary rule and re­turned of­fi­cials from Mubarak’s for­mer regime to power. El-Sissi is the latest in a line of mil­i­tary strong­men to rule Egypt since the charis­matic Ga­mal Adel Nasser over­threw the UK-backed monar­chy in 1952.

Rad­i­cal­iza­tion and Sub­se­quent


El-Sissi’s crack­down is rem­i­nis­cent of Nasser’s sup­pres­sion of the Brother­hood in the 1950s and 1960s, which helped lay the ide­o­log­i­cal foun­da­tions for the emer­gence of vi­o­lent Is­lamic move­ments in Egypt and through­out the Mid­dle East. This pat­tern of re­pres­sion that leads to rad­i­cal­iza­tion is be­ing re­peated to­day.

The Mus­lim Brother­hood is the old­est and most in­flu­en­tial Is­lamist move­ment in the Arab and Mus­lim worlds; it has inspired branches and af­fil­i­ates through­out the Mid­dle East. In fits and starts over sev­eral decades, Is­lamist par­ties across the re­gion re­nounced vi­o­lence and com­mit­ted to par­tic­i­pat­ing in elec­toral pol­i­tics.

But now Is­lamists view the Egyp­tian mil­i­tary’s coup and sub­se­quent crack­down as a sig­nal that elec­tion re­sults will not be re­spected. The process can spi­ral out of con­trol: In 1992, the Is­lamic Sal­va­tion Front was on the verge of win­ning par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in Al­ge­ria when the mil­i­tary in­ter­vened and can­celled the re­sults. That coup set off an eightyear civil war that killed more than 100,000 peo­ple.

And that is the dan­ger many in the Arab world and in the West are fail­ing to grasp: While au­thor­i­tar­ian rule ap­pears to pro­vide sta­bil­ity over the short term, it breeds dis­con­tent and af­firms the idea that vi­o­lence is an ac­cept­able and in­deed the only way to be heard.

To­day, the Egyp­tian mil­i­tary can con­tinue its crack­down with im­punity be­cause the United States and other Western pow­ers made clear that they fa­vor sta­bil­ity over democ­racy. Much of the West ac­cepted the coup and has re­mained largely silent about the sham tri­als and mass death sen­tences be­ing handed down by the Egyp­tian ju­di­ciary. The United States pro­vides Egypt with US$1.3 bil­lion in mil­i­tary aid each year, but it has been re­luc­tant to use that aid as lever­age against the Egyp­tian regime.

There is another dan­ger of an au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment de­mo­niz­ing all Is­lamists as ter­ror­ists who must be sup­pressed: It be­comes a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy. El-Sissi’s ac­tions prove to those who ad­vo­cate vi­o­lence that it is the only path. Ul­ti­mately, Is­lamists will con­clude that the only way to pro­tect them­selves and achieve power is by tak­ing up arms.

To­day, the strug­gle over Is­lamism is be­tween two paths: the vi­o­lence ad­vo­cated by mil­i­tant groups like al-Qaida and the Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria, or the com­mit­ment to build­ing a so­cial base and par­tic­i­pat­ing in elec­toral pol­i­tics, as Is­lamist groups in Tur­key, Morocco, Tu­nisia and Egypt have done. We must not al­low au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes such as el-Sissi’s to ma­lign that history of peace­ful po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment, or to breed new re­sent­ments with its latest cy­cle of re­pres­sion.

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