Mohammed Morsi, the largely unknown and uncharismatic engineer and onetime professor at Cal State University who was jokingly referred to as the “spare tire” when his party rolled him out of the closet to run for president in 2012, went from a backroom Muslim Brotherhood apparatchik to a widely hailed symbol of the Islamist cause.
The creators of this tragic icon — who will almost certainly inspire generations of disgruntled Islamists — are none other than Egypt’s men in khaki. By ousting, arresting, putting on show trial and criminally neglecting until his death a man whose presidency lasted just 12 months, the Egyptian military, led by Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, the current president, made a hero out of a villain. It also transformed a hugely unpopular leader into the stuff of legend.
Morsi died on Monday, but his anointment as an immortal martyr of the cause has already begun, with his wife and other prominent Muslim Brotherhood members describing his death as martyrdom. Social media was awash this week with posts from Morsi supporters eulogizing the deposed president, including an image of the dead leader with angel wings ascending to the heavens. An Arabic hashtag describing Morsi as the martyr of the Islamic nation was popular on Twitter.
With Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers prohibited from organizing a public funeral in Egypt, exiled members living in Turkey took to the streets to express their grief, chanting “Murderer Sissi, martyr Morsi,” with some holding up banners vowing that “putschists will be defeated.”
Islamists and conservatives across the Muslim world have been paying tribute to his courage and defiance, describing him in terms normally reserved for saints. “History will never forget those tyrants who led to his death by putting him in jail and threatening him with execution,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a man who knows a thing or two about being a tyrant, putting opponents behind bars, including thousands in solitary confinement, and pushing to reinstate the death penalty. “May God rest … our martyr’s soul in peace.”
Morsi’s perceived martyrdom was wholly unnecessary and entirely avoidable. He was, indeed, the first president in Egypt’s history to be elected in a multicandidate electoral race, but his ineptitude and divisive politics quickly made him incredibly unpopular, even among former supporters.
At the time, many Egyptians I encountered who had voted for him were disappointed that Morsi’s piety had not translated into compassion for his compatriots, let alone competence — that he was an incompetent version of Hosni Mubarak, but with a beard. Like his predecessor, he also intimidated and locked up critics and employed violence against protesters.
Morsi’s authoritarian tendencies and ambitions were on full display in November 2012, when he granted himself dictatorial powers, prompting angry protests that forced him to backpedal. Rather than being a conciliatory transitional leader, Morsi was deeply partisan, and his top priority was to Islamize to the max the draft constitution and to place Brotherhood loyalists in positions of influence and power.
But Morsi’s malice wasn’t the only problem. For a party that had been preparing to govern for decades, the Muslim Brotherhood’s breathtaking incompetence in power confounded most Egyptians. One ironic example of this legendary ineptitude came when a confidential, leakproof meeting to discuss options for dealing with Ethiopia’s plans to build a dam on the Nile was broadcast live on television.
The popular discontent with Morsi and his Brotherhood prompted waves of popular protest, culminating in a mass uprising on June 30, 2013.
Had the military stayed out and let matters run their course, the mass mobilization on the streets might have eventually forced Morsi to call early elections or led to his government’s downfall. But el-Sissi, currently Egypt’s president, had other plans — and ambitions.
Even after the undemocratic coup he engineered, el-Sissi could have navigated a more pragmatic and conciliatory path — after all, the Muslim Brotherhood had squandered in a few short months most of the popular goodwill it had carefully nurtured through decades of charity work and grass-roots activities.
Instead, el-Sissi demanded a “mandate” to eradicate what he described as “terrorism,” perpetrating the bloodiest and cruelest massacre of civilians in Egypt’s modern history, in which more than 1,000 civilians were butchered by security forces. This pivotal moment convinced many in the Muslim Brotherhood that politics was not for them and reawakened the movement’s paranoia and persecution complex.
The relentless repression since 2013 has radicalized some former members, propelling them toward more violent movements, and has helped the Brotherhood regain some of the popular sympathy it lost in power.
Rather than stamping out the terrorism the regime claims disingenuously to be fighting, Egypt is now faced with a full-blown insurgency in Sinai and terrorist attacks on the mainland have become commonplace.
Like the end result of President George W. Bush’s war on terror, this failure was all too easy to foresee. That Morsi’s death after years of imprisonment and wanton neglect would prompt Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers to view el-Sissi as a murderer and “enemy of Islam” is also something that has been clear for some years now.
Beyond bleeding-heart humanists like myself, this terrifying possibility could have and should have been abundantly clear to the Egyptian regime. After all, it has been here before: In the 1950s and 1960s, then-President Gamel Abdel Nasser undertook a similar crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1966, the Nasser regime took the fateful decision to execute a radical Muslim Brother by the name of Sayyid Qutb. Qutb was transformed overnight into a martyr who has inspired violent Islamists ever since, including Osama bin Laden, who was at first embraced by the United States because it shortsightedly wanted to use his zeal against the Soviets in Afghanistan, creating even greater blowback.
This raises the pertinent question of whether there is method in the madness, or only madness in the methods employed by the el-Sissi regime. Is the Egyptian leader a cunning Machiavellian political operator who, needing a threat sufficiently scary, first needed to create the monster he will spend years attempting to slay, even if it runs the risk of pushing his country over the abyss?
It’s possible he simply lacks the capacity to react in any other way. Unlike Mubarak, who despite being a military man spent years in politics before becoming president, el-Sissi has only ever known the army, with its inflexibility, hierarchy and obedience, and this has made him view the political arena as a literal, rather than a figurative, battlefield.
The silence from Washington will further inflame the false Islamist narrative that alleges that the coup against Morsi was a U.S.-Zionist conspiracy against Islam. Of course, this flies against the evidence, as Morsi actually enjoyed good relations with Washington and continued Mubarak’s policies toward the U.S.
Judging by America’s track record in the Middle East, its overriding concern is what Washington defines as its “vital interests,” and ideology plays a surprisingly marginal role. That explains why America has a decades-old special relationship with Saudi Arabia, the self-defined home of Islam, and the other conservative Arab Gulf states.
Nevertheless, Morsi’s perceived martyrdom will lead radical Islamists to bend and twist reality to serve their ideological and political purposes. The conspiracy theories about the evil forces that emerged following Morsi’s downfall will take on new life and ever more elaborate formats after his death, which will be juxtaposed against the angelic image of saintly virtue that has been constructed around the martyred leader, in whose memory and cause some of his followers will also wish to martyr themselves. And this is bad news for Egypt, the Middle East, America and the West.
Khaled Diab is a journalist and writer. He is the author of “Islam for the Politically Incorrect” and “Intimate Enemies.” He wrote this article for the Washington Post.