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Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, 67, died Monday after collapsing while in a glass cage inside a Cairo courtroom. The Muslim Brotherhood leader was elected in 2012 in Egypt’s first, and still only, democratic election. He was overthrown a year later in a military coup led by Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Morsi’s death comes as el-Sisi continues to jail tens of thousands of people in what the Associated Press has described as the heaviest crackdown on dissent in Egypt’s modern history. In his final comments, Morsi insisted he was still Egypt’s legitimate president. Morsi spent the last six years of his life in jail, including extended periods in solitary confinement. His family and global human rights groups often denounced the poor conditions and Morsi’s treatment in jail, arguing he had been deprived of much-needed healthcare. Morsi was buried in Cairo earlier today. We speak with Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent and a reporter with Mada Masr, an independent media outlet in Cairo.
Sharif Abdel Kouddous
By Juan González
Published on Democracy Now!, June 18, 2019
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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi died on Monday after collapsing while in a glass cage inside a Cairo courtroom. Morsi was [ 67 ] years old. He was buried earlier today in Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood leader was elected in 2012 in Egypt’s first, and still only, democratic election, but he was deposed a year later in a military coup led by Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In his final comments, Morsi insisted he was still Egypt’s legitimate president. Morsi’s historic election came one year after mass protests led to the the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule in Egypt. Morsi spent the last six years of his life in jail, including extended periods in isolation.
AMY GOODMAN: The Muslim Brotherhood, which is now banned in Egypt, has described Morsi’s death as, quote, “full-fledged murder.” Human Rights Watch said, quote, “The government of Egypt today bears responsibility for his death, given their failure to provide him with adequate medical care or basic prisoner rights.” Morsi’s death comes as el-Sisi continues to jail tens of thousands of people in what the Associated Press has described as the heaviest crackdown on dissent in Egypt’s modern history.
We go now to Cairo, Egypt, where we’re joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent and a reporter with Mada Masr, an independent media outlet in Cairo.
Sharif, this must have come as a shock to many yesterday, when you have the former president of Egypt collapsing in court and dying. Talk about the significance of Mohamed Morsi, also why he was in court.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Morsi is Egypt’s first democratically elected president, really the first elected president in the Arab world. And, really, that’s what he’ll be remembered for. But before 2002—sorry, before 2012, before he became the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for president, many people had never heard of Mohamed Morsi. He was a bureaucrat in the Muslim Brotherhood. He was by no means a leading figure or an influential figure in the organization. He rose really through the ranks as a party man and as a loyal bureaucrat. He was elected to Parliament in 2000. And in 2011, after Mubarak’s ouster, he was named president of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. When the Brotherhood made the controversial decision to field a presidential candidate, it named Khairat el-Shater, its leading financier and strategist, as its top choice. When el-Shater was disqualified from the race, then the backup candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was suddenly thrust into the spotlight.
And during his brief one-year rule, he came under criticism from many segments of Egyptian society, including those at the heart of the revolution at the time. Morsi’s government and the Brotherhood pursued policies that were meant to restrict the right to assemble, the right to protest, the right to form NGOs. They spurned a draft law that guaranteed the right to form independent unions. Morsi named Mohamed Ibrahim as his interior minister in January of 2013, who then embarked on a very harsh crackdown on any protesters against him.
But Morsi also had some achievements, none less than foreign policy, where he helped broker a ceasefire in Gaza in 2012, after only a week of fighting. And that marked a very big difference that we saw under Sisi’s rule in 2014, when Israel absolutely pummeled Gaza for a number of weeks.
In November, he made a kind of a fateful decision—November of 2012—a fateful decision to issue a constitutional declaration that gave him temporary and far-reaching powers that placed him beyond the reach of the courts, and this sparked kind of the first mass protests against his rule. And these protests eventually grew, culminating in this June 30th mobilization that was very actively backed by the security establishment and the army. And then he was removed from power by the military, led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, then a general, whom Morsi himself had named as his prime minister the summer before.
And Morsi has been in prison ever since, in very harsh prison conditions. Many political detainees in Egypt suffer from brutal prison conditions, but Morsi seems to have been especially singled out for mistreatment. He was held in solitary confinement for the last six years. He was kept in his cell for 23 hours a day with hardly any communication whatsoever. He was barred from seeing his family or his lawyers. In the past six years, he only met—had three family visits. And he regularly complained that he was suffering, his health was suffering. He said, in June of 2017, that he slipped into a diabetic coma for two days. He repeatedly asked in court to be transferred to a private medical facility. His family, when they did see him in one of the handful of times, said that he had lost significant weight. And there was a report last year by—headed by a number of British parliamentarians and senior lawyers, that found that his health was indeed deteriorating. And they concluded that if he didn’t get treatment, it could likely lead to his premature death.
And this is what we saw yesterday. And it was also a very dramatic moment, if I can just give you some of the details. The official statement by the public prosecutor is that Morsi was in the defendant’s cage. He demanded from the judge to be able to address the court. The judge granted that. He spoke for a few minutes. And during those few minutes, he said that he demanded the right to speak to his lawyers. He likened himself to a blind man who had no idea what was going on in his trial. And he ended—he actually ended—his last words were, according to a lawyer who spoke to Mada Masr, he said—he quoted from a poem. And he said, “My country, even if it fought me, is dear to me. My people, even if they resented me, are honorable.” Those were reportedly his last words, according to one of his lawyers.
After that, the hearing was adjourned, and then Morsi collapsed inside the defendant’s cage. The other defendants around him, some of whom were physicians, tried to revive him. He was then taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. He was buried early today under heavy security. The family attended the funeral prayers inside the mosque inside Cairo’s notorious Tora Prison. Authorities did not allow Morsi to be buried in his family’s cemetery in the delta. Instead, he was buried in a cemetery in Cairo, where a number of other prominent Islamists are held. And security officials turned reporters away from there and barred any photographers from taking pictures at the funeral.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sharif, I wanted to ask you in terms of how the resistance has continued against the military regime in the years subsequent to the deposing of Morsi, and if you could talk about that, as well. But also, the broader question here, to my mind, is that the West has often pressed the necessity for democratic reforms in the Arab and Muslim world, but we’ve seen now, over several decades now, that when Islamists win power through democratic elections, they’re crushed, whether it was in Algeria with the Islamic Salvation Front in the early ’90s, when the military crushed what was seen to be a victory, a popular democratic victory, by Islamic forces; whether it was in Gaza, when—in the Palestinian territories in 2007, when Hamas won in the election, and Israel, together with the Palestinian Authority, then sought to crush the Hamas victory; or whether in Egypt in 2013 with the deposing by the military of Morsi. What is a young Arab Muslim person in the Arab and Muslim world, when they see this happening, with the support and complicity of the West—what alternative do they have but to resort to violence against their oppressors?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, you know, I was surprised today when the response by the international community, there was very little comments by—coming out of Washington, out of Berlin, out of Paris, out of London, about Mohamed Morsi’s death. This was the democratically elected president of, by far, the largest, most populous Arab country, who was deposed by the military, who suffered deeply as a political detainee in prison, and yet there was very little comment about his—you know, this dramatic death of him after speaking in court.
And this speaks to—you know, there’s widespread acceptance of Sisi’s government, of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the president of Egypt. He’s been accepted by Europe, which lavishes millions of euros on Egypt in deals to try and stem the flow of migrants to Europe. Egypt has become the biggest purchaser of weapons from Germany in the world, is a massive purchaser of weapons from France. They buy weapons from Italy, and technology, as well, and from England. So, this is kind of the consensus now. And Sisi says the line that, you know, “At least we’re not Libya. At least we’re not Syria. At least we’re not Yemen”—all these failed states around Egypt that have collapsed following brutal civil wars. Many of them, the West intervened in. And this is the line that seems to have been accepted.
So, as far as resistance goes in Egypt, there’s been—you know, we keep talking about the very difficult and harsh crackdown on any and all opposition voices in Egypt. And that continues. There’s very little in the way of political parties. Civil society has been almost driven underground and is operating in a very repressive environment. The media has been controlled, not just through censorship, but also through acquisition by the General Intelligence Services, which is now the largest media owner in Egypt. And we really saw that today, when the coverage in the local press of Morsi’s death not—only one newspaper had it on the front page. Every other newspaper buried the news deep inside the paper. They almost had identical coverage of 42 words, not even referring to Mohamed Morsi as the former president. So that speaks to kind of the media landscape.
Having said that, there still are people willing to speak out all the time despite these very harsh measures. We saw, when Sisi was—the Sisi government was pushing through and Parliament was pushing through constitutional amendments to extend Sisi’s rule in power until 2030, which was passed a couple of months ago, hundreds of thousands of people signed an open petition with their names online in opposition to the constitutional amendments. We see these kinds of moments where people are willing to speak out. So, in terms of organization and actual groundwork, it’s hard to tell what is actually happening. But despite what is a very difficult situation and an extremely harsh clampdown, I am still surprised by the tenacity of people to be willing to speak out and criticize the government.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, you mentioned response from the West. In April, Trump welcomed el-Sisi, General Sisi, who overthrew, of course, Mohamed Morsi and is now the president—he welcomed him to the White House for the second time, saying, “We have never had a better relationship, Egypt and the United States, than we do right now.” Also then, Trump pushed for the Muslim Brotherhood to be designated a terrorist organization, but apparently the State Department and the Pentagon said it didn’t meet the requirements, and so President Trump couldn’t do what el-Sisi wanted, Sharif.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. Sisi recently visited and reportedly asked for that again. And we saw Trump again restarting this call to label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Even within, you know, the U.S.’s government itself, many State Department officials and Defense Department officials think that will be a very divisive move to do, because the Brotherhood operates in many countries as a political organization. But there is this kind of branding of or an attempt to brand all Islamists as terrorists, as unfit for political rule.
And this fits in the rubric of a larger world order that has completely been accepted by the United States and the West. I mean, Trump does have a very chummy relationship with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and they sing praises of each other. But again, the actual policy does not mark a significant shift from decades of U.S. policy, whether by Republican or Democratic administrations, which has been to continue massive military aid to Egypt, to continue diplomatic support and economic support to Egypt. In fact, Trump suspended more aid than Obama did, following even the Rabaa massacre in August of 2013. But both of them—they both suspended some aid, and both restored it eventually. So, this has been a continuation of a long-standing policy, which is to work with a “strongman,” quote-unquote, that we like. And Sisi seems to be very happy with that, and that seems to be the international consensus, especially by Europe and the United States, that Sisi is an acceptable leader that they’re going to work with.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sharif, if you could, briefly, detail for us what were the actual charges against Morsi that he was facing trial for. And his trial extended for quite a period of time?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Morsi was facing multiple different trials. At the time of his death, he was serving a 20-year sentence in one case that had to do with clashes outside the presidential palace. He was serving a life sentence in another case. He was serving a three-year sentence for insulting the judiciary. And then there were two pending cases on which he was going onto retrial for. One of them was a case involving spying for Hamas, and that was the case that he was on yesterday. And another one that he still had going on had to do with a supposed 2011 prison break, where he was charged with that. So there’s been, you know, these massive kind of trials happening, with these fantastical charges against him. One of them is that he conspired with all these groups—the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah and Hamas—to foment this Islamist takeover of Egypt. And they’ve been marred by very serious due process violations.
We’ve seen other leading Muslim Brotherhood members been sentenced to death multiple times. Many of them have received multiple life sentences. So, it’s clear none of them will be getting out of prison as long as this government is in power. And we’ve seen, yesterday, Morsi die. A leading former supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mahdi Akef, died last year, I believe. He was also suffering. He was very old and needed medical attention, and he died in prison. So, this is kind of the situation that we see.
And again, I have to stress that this is what thousands and thousands of political prisoners in Egypt face: years in prison, after being convicted on trials that fall very short of due process. Many of them have not even been convicted at all and are held in what’s called remand detention, where they can be held without conviction for up to three years under Egypt’s penal code, and they’re often held more than that.
And finally, many people who complete their sentences then face something called probation, where you have people like Shawkan, the photographer who was arrested in August 2013, or Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a revolutionary icon, who both have—after spending five years in prison, now have five years of probation, where they are required to sleep and spend the night at a police station every day, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. They have to turn themselves in every single day to the police station, where they sleep either on the floor or in a cell or sometimes even outside the station, and they’re basically detained for half the day. So, it’s these very draconian measures that the Sisi government has continued to pursue and doesn’t seem to be letting up in any way whatsoever.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, as we begin to wrap up, if you could talk about the estimates of how many political prisoners there are in Egypt? But also, as a, you know, key member of the independent media landscape in Egypt, can you talk about the pressure on an independent press in Egypt?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: It’s very difficult to find an actual figure of the number of political prisoners. There have been some estimates by rights groups that put it between 40,000 and 60,000 prisoners. We regularly see sweeps of people, that continue to this day. Even people who haven’t spoken out for a long time, their house will be raided at dawn, and they’ll be taken away. And usually they’ll face charges like joining an outlawed organization, which—
AMY GOODMAN: I’m sorry, we just have 20 seconds left on the satellite, Sharif.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: —usually means the Muslim Brotherhood. Or they’re—
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 20 seconds.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I would say the independent media landscape is quite small but thriving. And Mada Masr is one of the best outlets for that, but it operates in a very repressive and restrictive environment.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we thank you so much for being with us, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, a reporter with Mada Masr, an independent media outlet, speaking to us from Cairo, Egypt, upon the death of the former democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. He died in a cage in court, where he was being tried.