Mohammad Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, died in a soundproof courthouse cage last month. His death, or rather murder, was caused by the deliberate denial of medical treatment for his diabetes and other ailments.
It comes six years after Morsi and his government were ousted by a military council that took advantage of widespread discontent with his authoritarian and neoliberal rule. This followed two years of revolutionary street protests, strikes and occupations. Once in power, the military junta banned all protests, imprisoned thousands of activists and intensified social and economic oppression of working people.
Meanwhile, the tyrant Hosni Mubarak walks free, acquitted of all wrongdoing in his 30 long years as dictator.
It is difficult, even now, to accept these injustices. Behind the simple words lie so many repressed hopes and deferred dreams, so many bodies thrown into mass graves.
For those who lived through it, the Egyptian revolution was incredibly inspiring. The people of Egypt became the focus of a world still reeling from the global financial crisis. They were our champions, proof that revolution was not only possible but also beautiful.
Solidarity and copycat protests spread across the Middle East, Europe and the US. Activists across the world desperately gobbled up news about the mass occupation of Tahrir Square, strikes by working women in Mahalla, marches on the border with Gaza.
It started as a youth rebellion before expanding to encompass the entirety of Egyptian society. The military tried their best to curtail the movement, but were eventually forced to call free elections for the first time in Egypt’s history.
Morsi was always a controversial figure. Many on the broad left refused to back him in the second round of the presidential elections due to the policies of his party, the Muslim Brotherhood. A deeply conservative and pro-capitalist organisation, the Brotherhood had long operated as a loyal opposition to the military regime. It had refused to back the uprising until its triumph seemed assured; it was in no way revolutionary.
Morsi’s narrow victory over a candidate of the old regime was an important defensive victory for the revolution, yet from day one he set out to reassert order and stability. He cracked down on protests and strikes, insisting that “the wheel of production must keep turning”. He signed deals with the International Monetary Fund that included an end to subsidies for bread and fuel. These would have caused the further impoverishment of millions if they hadn’t been overturned due to enormous protests and riots. Despite the Brotherhood being aligned with the Palestinian group Hamas, in government it maintained Egypt’s subsidised gas sales to Israel and kept the border with Gaza closed.
For these reasons and more, opposition to Morsi’s increasingly repressive and fiscally conservative government grew. This discontent was hegemonised by middle class forces keen to return the old regime to power. The so-called second revolution of June 2013 turned out to be the prologue for a counter-revolutionary military coup. The massacre of nearly 1,000 Morsi supporters at Rabaa shortly after was a signal that dissent from this new junta would not be tolerated.
The Western world’s muted response to these events prefigured their indifference to Morsi’s death today. Incredibly, neither Trump, Morrison nor any single member of the EU has put out a statement acknowledging Morsi’s passing. As close allies of the military dictatorship headed by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, they are utterly disinterested in highlighting the injustice of this case, or the broader attack on democratic rights following the coup.
What lessons can be drawn from this disaster?
The massacre of peaceful protesters in Egypt suggests that there are no lines that the ruling class will not cross to remain in power. They are terrified of genuine democracy and are prepared to drown popular movements in blood if necessary, as we are seeing in Sudan today. This is not unique to the non-Western world. The acceptance of such behaviour without comment by Western leaders signals that, if pushed, they too would resort to similar measures.
It also points to the strategic necessity for revolutionary organisation. The Egyptian revolution ultimately failed to resolve the grievances of the workers, students and the poor who animated it. They struggled admirably against first one, then another, form of reactionary capitalist government, insisting on “bread, freedom and social justice”. But without a perspective for overthrowing the state and the capitalist forces that back it – and for creating organisations of workers’ power capable of carrying out this transition and restructuring the economy in the interests of the majority – the revolution was doomed to defeat or cooption.
When Morsi attacked workers and the poor, clamped down on democratic freedoms, centralised power in the hands of the presidency and empowered the military, there was no revolutionary force that could effectively oppose him. Morsi thus paved the way for both his own destruction and that of the wider democratic revolution. Those who half-make a revolution dig their own grave, as the saying goes.
The Egyptian people will rise once more. They must find better leaders than Mohammad Morsi.