Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the beginning of a downward spiral?
The circumstances surrounding the death of former President Mohamed Morsi shed a harsh light on the repression of political opposition in Egypt since 2013.
“Good news come in threes, too.” This is perhaps what Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi must have been thinking since the beginning of the year.
- First, on 9 January his country won the rights to host the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournament, which began 21 June.
- The head of state, who has been in charge for six years, took over the leadership of the African Union (AU) in mid-February.
- And the push into Libya’s Fezzan region by his ally Marshal Khalifa Haftar couldn’t have happened at a better time.
Furthermore, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir – with whom Sisi has had strained relations – was facing an unprecedented popular protest around the same time. Sisi also had constitutional reforms approved in April, which allow him to run for a third term and possibly remain in power until 2030.
Despite this winning streak, the death of Mohamed Morsi, the former president of the Muslim Brotherhood, on 17 June, suddenly changed the optics.
In solitary confinement for six years, 67-year-old Morsi fainted inside a glass cage in a Cairo courtroom where he was on trial for allegedly spying for the Palestinian Islamist organisation Hamas.
- The former head of state, who was overthrown in 2013 by the man he had appointed minister of defence a year earlier, probably died from a heart attack.
Suffering from diabetes and already sentenced to 20 years in prison for repressing demonstrations in 2012, Morsi had little chance of surviving the conditions of his detention – total isolation, lack of adequate medical care and family visits – which were denounced by a British parliamentary committee in March 2018.
- And today, Morsi’s fate leaves an overwhelming feeling of partial justice, especially since Morsi’s autocratic predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2012, was released in 2017.
Taking back control
The fear of the current administration is that the death of Egypt’s only democratically elected president under these circumstances will make him a martyr. Especially since liberal circles who had welcomed the takeover of the army in 2013, denounced the unfair treatment meted out to Morsi.
- The security forces in the province of Charkiya, where Morsi was born, were put on alert after his death was announced. The ousted president was swiftly and discreetly buried in a Cairo cemetery, at night behind closed doors, with only his family members permitted.
There is little risk that the president will be confronted with a popular uprising, as Egypt’s economy is showing signs of growth.
But, for the government, Morsi’s death couldn’t have occurred at a worse time of regional crisis. In both Algeria and Sudan, a wave of popular uprising eventually led to the departure of Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar al-Bashir respectively. In both countries there is now an army-driven transition similar to Egypt post-Mubarak.
- The problem is that in Algiers, as in Khartoum, the military no longer has a strong role to play.
- The Egyptian model of a military institution that protects the State has lost its appeal and is now shunned by some Algerians and Sudanese.
In early June, the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council suspended Sudan after the Cairo-supported Transitional Military Council repressed demonstrations calling for the establishment of a civilian government, killing more than 100 people.
It is hard not to see this as a rebuke to President Sisi’s own modus operandi by the AU. Not to mention how Morsi’s death also draws international attention to the massive repression of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are automatically considered jihadists and of whom tens of thousands of sympathisers are believed to have been thrown in jail in Egypt.
- The UN has since called for a “thorough and independent” investigation into the death of former president Morsi.
While the image of Sisi as a popular leader and bulwark against Islamist extremism once convinced his Western allies, the picture looks different today.
This article was first published in Jeune Afrique