Death sentence may turn maligned Morsi a venerated martyr

VENTURES AFRICA – Last week, Egypt’s supreme court sentenced deposed president Mohammed Morsi to death for a mass prison break in 2011. The ruling, which has been referred to the Grand Mufti for advice, has drawn local and international criticism. However, the death sentence on Morsi has stirred up something more dramatic than criticism and condemnations; the rising sympathy for the President who was removed from power with popular support.

Mohammed Morsi’s rise to power began with the fall of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak who was forced to step down following nationwide protests against his rule. Morsi won the presidential election that followed on the platform of the Justice and Peace party, controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood which was illegal until Mubarak’s downfall. The election was regarded as the freest in the history of the country and Morsi became the first democratically elected President.

However Morsi’s fall kicked in not long after his rise began. A mixture of authoritarian moves, conservative policies and the failure to revive Egypt’s crashed economy led to the swell of criticism against Morsi and an eventual nationwide protest against his government. Citing popular rejection, the Army led by now-president Fattah al-Sisi sacked Morsi’s government for failing to accede to the demand of the people.

Following its removal of Morsi and his government, the al-Sisi-led army began suppressing the President and the Muslim Brotherhood. A heavy crackdown of the group’s protests led to the death of dozens of brotherhood members. The suppression continued through al-Sisi’s contest, and victory, in a reconstituted presidential election in which he promised to exterminate the islamist group. Despite banning the group and jailing its leaders, including Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s is still far from becoming forgotten, and Morsi is only gaining a rise in public sympathy.

The Egyptian judiciary says it is prosecuting Morsi and his allies in the Brotherhood for several offences against the state, but the institution has increasingly found itself in trial. Mass death sentences and accusations of violation of the defendants’ fundamental human rights have irked even the government’s closest allies. The European Union and the US, major backers of the Egyptian government, have severally raised concerns about the procedures of justice and the State’s disrespect of human rights. The Egyptian Coptic church, which loudly criticised the Morsi government and his islamist group, have joined in condemning the death sentence for the former president. Social activists in the country have also raised fears about the government usage of the clampdown on Islamic terrorism as a guise to harp freedom of speech. Many of such activists have found themselves behind bars.

The criticisms of the Judiciary and the government’s heavy handedness has emboldened Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters. It is also swelling public sympathy for the unpopular president. Following the death sentence passed on him, many in Egypt and around the middle-east took to Twitter to express solidarity with him using the Hashtags #WeStandforMorsi #IamMorsi and several others. Human rights group Amnesty International described the trial was a “charade” and based on “void procedures”. “Condemning Mohamed Morsi to death after more grossly unfair trials shows a complete disregard for human rights … he was held for months incommunicado without judicial oversight and that he didn’t have a lawyer to represent him,” the organisation said in a statement.

Turkey has also been at the forefront of criticising the trial and judgement. The country’s state-run Anatolian news agency quoted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as saying; “While the West is abolishing the death penalty, they are just watching the continuation of death sentences in Egypt. They don’t do anything about it.”

These condemnations show the dangers of using repression to combat political opposition. The continent is replete with examples of where such political oppression launched or relaunched the career of political opponents. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Zimbabwe’s Roberto Mugabe, and Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo are prominent examples of political actors who imprisonment only served to inflame public support.

Mohammed Morsi’s case seems to be different from the above examples, given the genuine opposition to his group’s islamist ideology by about half of the Egyptian population. Nevertheless, the high-handed measures of the current government may see it assume the same level of unpopularity that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood achieved in less than one year in Power. The Justice Ministry has rejected the criticism of the death penalties on Mohamed Morsi and over 120 others,  a sign that it may not bulge on its verdict. However, if the government goes ahead with the verdict and puts Mohammed Morsi to death, they may just be cleansing him of the errs of his time in power and launching him as a symbol against an oppressive regime, despite the fact that he once led one.