When the Egyptian people rose up and overthrow Hosni Mubarak after almost thirty years in power, the world was stunned. When the Tunisians first overthrew Ben Ali, their dictator for over twenty years, the world had paid less attention. Tunisia is a small country, and US officials were soon to say that Egypt was not Tunisia (and Bahrain was not Egypt and Tunisia, and supporters of Assad would insist that Syria was not Egypt). If losing one pro-Western dictator could be attributed to anomalous misfortune, losing a second pro-Western dictator was not carelessness. The Arab world was in rebellion against an unjust status quo based on decades of entrenched misrule, led by oppressive regimes mostly installed or backed by the West.
Egypt had traditionally been the most influential country in the Arab world. A free Egypt would not just mean drastic changes internally. It also promised – some might say threatened – to destabilise oppressive regimes throughout the region that had benefited from a pliant media environment and a sense that the status quo was not something that could change. Dictators who had stayed in power for decades had little need for overt brutality to sustain their power. The publics had seemingly come to accept that this was how things were going to be.
When Egypt erupted with massive protests, it received international coverage. When Mubarak was ousted, surrounding Arab dictators looked unstable. Which country would be next? Syria? Libya? Jordan? Bahrain? Saudi Arabia?
Eight years later, the so-called Arab Spring looks dead. Yemen overthrew Ali Abdullah Saleh only to have a new ruler foisted on it under a supposedly democratic transition backed by Saudi Arabia and the US. Yemen then had a democratic election that featured only one candidate. When he was overthrown, a Saudi led coalition invaded to restore traditional Saudi hegemony, creating the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and threatening millions with famine. Libya’s uprising stalled, at which point NATO bombs stepped in, theoretically to prevent a massacre of the civilian population, but soon openly working to oust Gaddafi. Libya quickly unravelled into a total disaster. This received little attention, as the West had taken the opportunity to gloat about bringing democracy to a new country. Bahrain rose up, and then was crushed by an invading Saudi force. Syria has been devastated by a civil war and proxy war that has killed hundreds of thousands, and still left the dictator in place.
As Esam Al Amin notes, following the overthrow of Mubarak
the people in Egypt went to the polls at least six times: to vote for a referendum to chart the political way forward (March 2011), to vote for the lower and upper house of parliament (November 2011-January 2012), to elect a civilian president over two rounds (May-June 2012), and to ratify the new constitution (December 2012). Each time the electorate voted for the choice of the Islamist parties to the frustration of the secular and liberal opposition.
Unable to compete electorally, the Egyptian secular liberal elites who benefited from the old regime and the military worked together to end Egyptian democracy. The group was united in a campaign called Tamarod, which claimed to have gathered 22 million signatures on a petition on the eve of the coup against the President, Mohamed Morsi. The signatures were never authenticated. It later turned out Tamarod worked closely with the Interior Ministry and the Egyptian army, and their lavish funding came from the military and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE and Saudi Arabia gave key backing to the coup and pressed Washington to support it when it took place.
Likewise, the protests against Morsi on 30 June 2013 were originally claimed to comprise thirty million people. These enormous figures, circulated wildly across social media, suggested that virtually half the country had turned out to oust Morsi. Later, specialists revised this figure. It’s ‘likely‘ there were over a million protesters in total. If we were to adjust for comparative population figures, this is as if 250 000 people protested against the Liberal government in Australia and it became a pretext to call in the army, cancel democracy and ban the Liberals.
International opposition was not aroused as the coup took place, as internationally renowned Egyptian secularists defended the coup in various ways. The coup was not a coup, the military was actually defending democracy, the Presidency of Mohamed Morsi was a dictatorship anyway. Best-selling novelist Ahdaf Soueif offered an equivocal version in which she helped justify the coup and the ensuing massacres, but then wrung her hands. Best-selling novelist Alaa al-Aswany showered the coup and its leader with praise (the coup was ‘not a coup d’etat’, and the new dictator is a ‘national hero’).
Once the military intervened and overthrew Morsi and the political party which had dominated six elections in two years, it was clear that they did not have many options. Unable to compete electorally, the regime had to instil enough fear to subjugate the population. Amnesty International reported in January 2014: ‘the Egyptian authorities are using all branches of the state to trample on human rights and quash dissent, armed with repressive legislation and aided by unaccountable security forces, as well as a judicial system that punishes government critics while allowing human rights violators to walk free.’ Human Rights Watch similarly observed that ‘Egyptian authorities have greatly restricted nearly all space for dissent. The authorities have arrested thousands of people solely for being members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, as well as secular and leftist activists.’
Amnesty further wrote that Egyptian security forces ‘routinely used excessive and unnecessary lethal force to disperse demonstrations, a practice that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of protesters and bystanders, as well as in some cases journalists and other media workers.’ The Muslim Brotherhood was designated a terrorist organisation, and its charities and affiliated NGOs were banned. Thousands ‘of Morsi supporters have been rounded-up by the security forces and face accusations of a string of identical offences, such as belonging to a banned terrorist group or protesting violently, without regard for their individual criminal responsibility.’
This was followed by a series of massacres of unarmed protesters. Amnesty summarises the record as follows:
Morsi supporters continued to protest, while security forces used excessive and unwarranted lethal force. In July 2013, in Cairo alone, over 50 protesters were killed by security forces in front of the Republican Guard Club, where Mohamed Morsi was believed to be held, and a further 80 people died in protests on Al-Nasr Road.
Eventually, in state violence unseen even during the first 18 days of the ‘25 January Revolution’, Morsi supporters were violently driven out of their sit-ins on 14 August 2013, leaving hundreds dead in unprecedented and unwarranted levels of lethal force used by the security forces to clear the public space of pro-Morsi protesters.
Morsi supporters were dealt another heavy blow two days later, when reckless fire by security forces led to the deaths of a further 97 people in the vicinity of Ramsis Square.
The largest subsequent pro-Morsi protest on 6 October 2013 was also dispersed with excessive and lethal force by the security forces, leaving at least 49 people dead.
Despite the crackdown, Mohamed Morsi’s supporters continue to stage regular protests, particularly on Fridays, as well as at universities, albeit on a smaller scale.
These are conservative estimates. The prime minister installed by the coup estimated that close to a thousand were killed in the massacre at Rabaa al-Adiwaya. The dead could number in the thousands. Amnesty observed in 2014 that ‘Egyptian authorities have spent the last year engaging in repression on a scale unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history.’
The new regime estimated that they had imprisoned 22 000 people since the July 2013 coup. The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights – which had documentation of arrests by name and date – said the real figure was 41 000 arrests. It soon turned out that General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was even more popular than Mubarak. Whilst Mubarak received some eighty-nine percent of the vote in 2005, Sisi got almost ninety-seven percent.
None of this received much attention or outcry in the West. Sisi was massacring Islamists. The US defended the coup on the grounds it was actually restoring democracy. In response to the worst massacres, it approved new arms sales to Egypt.
In Australia, our prime minister repeatedly expressed delight at Sisi’s massacres and mass arrests. Firstly, he justified the crackdown:
As far as the Australian Government is concerned the Muslim Brotherhood is, if not exactly a terrorist organisation, it certainly has at times been a friend of terrorist organisations and for that reason I have a lot of sympathy with the Egyptian Government.
Then he supported the actions Sisi was taking more generally:
I discussed a number of subjects with the President of Egypt including the deteriorating security situation in the Middle East and I congratulated him on the work that the new Government of Egypt had done to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, which is – if you like – the spiritual author and father of some of these even more radical groups.
It was a coup but, as Abbott explained:
This is, sure, a General but a General who has studied in both the United States and the United Kingdom so he is certainly someone who is familiar with the rule of law and the ordinary norms of justice.
The new President of Egypt will do whatever he reasonably can to ensure that we have peace and security in Egypt and more broadly in the Middle East. He is obviously concerned about the militant and radical tendencies…
I did form the impression from my discussions with President al-Sisi on the weekend that this is someone that you can have a reasonable discussion with, this is someone who does get it when it comes to the ordinary norms of justice and decency.
Abbott further dismissed talks of a coup, insisting ‘that the Australian Government respects the legitimacy of the new government in Egypt.’ In a nutshell:
Of course we respect the legitimacy of the Egyptian government; of course we appreciate the rights of the Egyptian justice system to make its decisions. Yes, we understand the need of the Egyptian government to maintain internal order and to crackdown on extremism including the Muslim Brotherhood…
Abbott at least spoke out for Australian journalist Peter Greste, as did much of the Australian media. Apparently, that was the only injustice in Egypt under Sisi. Six journalists were killed covering the massacre at Rabaa al-Adawiya. Sixty-five journalists were arrested within a year of the coup. As the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote, ‘dozens of critical voices, including journalists and political and human rights advocates, are behind bars in Egypt.’ These included fifteen years imprisonment for famous blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah (later reduced to five years).
Which brings us to the justice system. Esam Al Amin offered a telling analysis of one of the mass trials held in March 2014, at which 529 people were sentenced to death in relation to a riot in the wake of the Rabaa al-Adiwiya where a single police officer was killed. The hearings lasted less than two hours, including sentencing. On the first day of the trial, 14 000 pages were turned over to the judge and defence lawyers. Two days later, sentencing was handed down. No witnesses for the defence were allowed to testify. Among the 529 sentenced to death were three people who were not only already dead, but were already dead before the August protests. The same judge who handed down that verdict then conducted what Amnesty called another ‘lightning-fast trial’ – and sentenced 683 more to be executed. He then sent 491 other people to life imprisonment. Amnesty called this ‘repression on an industrial scale.’
Over time, the net of prosecutions has gradually expanded. Aswany, the popular novelist who regarded Sisi as a ‘national hero’, is now being prosecuted before Egypt’s military courts for insulting the president, the army and the courts. Reports Without Borders ranks Egypt 161th out of 180 countries on press freedom index, and thirty-one media figures are currently imprisoned. Five hundred websites have been banned, and visiting them is punishable with a year in prison. A poet was sentenced to three years imprisonment for ‘insulting the military’ and ‘spreading false news.’ Some 15 000 civilians have been referred to the military courts since 2014.
According to Reprieve, courts imposed death sentences on at least 2159 people from January 2014 to February 2018. Human Rights Watch found that this figure is actually over 2500. In that period, at least eighty-three people were duly executed. Reprieve notes that this ‘increase in death sentences is attributable largely to the advent of mass trials. Courts have begun sentencing dozens of defendants to death at the same time – on four separate occasions since 2013, courts have recommended death sentences for more than 100 people at once.’
It was within this justice system that Morsi was forced out of power, held in prison and made to suffer through numerous show trials.
According to Morsi’s friends, prison guards left him slumped in his courtroom cage for more than twenty minutes after he collapsed. His fellow detainees banged on the cage walls and yelled for the police to help him, to little avail. Morsi was buried in eastern Cairo, ‘against the wishes of his family who requested he be laid to rest in his home governorate of Sharqiya.’ Less than 10 people were allowed to attend his funeral and his family were not given access to an autopsy report on his death. According to Morsi’s former minister of international cooperation, speaking from Turkey, no independent examination of his body was permitted.
British politicians and a lawyers issued a report in April 2018 on the conditions of Morsi’s detention. The authors, Crispin Blunt MP, Lord Edward Faulks QC and Paul Williams MP, wrote in the Independent:
Morsi is being held in the notorious ‘Scorpion’ section of the Tora prison. Myriad reports have highlighted the cruel and degrading punishments carried out within its walls. A former warden interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2012 said: ‘It was designed so that those who go in don’t come out again, unless dead. It was designed for political prisoners.’ …
Not only is there concern for the conditions of Morsi’s detention, but there is a real worry about his deteriorating health. Morsi suffers from diabetes, an affliction which is easily manageable with simple medical care and an appropriate diet. However, a lack of both seems to be causing him serious problems. In the transcript of a recent trial appearance, he describes the loss of sight in his left eye and how low blood sugar made him fall ‘completely unconscious’.
At 67, Morsi is being made to sleep on the floor with only two blankets. On top of this, it appears he is being kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, with an hour to exercise alone. There is no indication that he has any contact with other people except for the guards, and it seems his calls for attention go frequently unheard. It is pertinent to note that the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment has said that in certain cases, solitary confinement can be classified as torture.
During the three years he spent in Tora prison, his family and lawyers were allowed to visit him twice. The British panel was not allowed to visit Morsi in his cell. They concluded that
If Morsi is not provided with adequate medical care soon, the consequence could be his premature death. He is at risk of liver failure, caused by not receiving the medical treatment he is entitled to. His confinement not only fails to meet international standards – the ‘Mandela rules’ – it could also once again meet the threshold for torture in accordance with Egyptian and international law.
[Morsi] would face a bewildering number of trials. He was first tried on charges of incitement to kill protesters during clashes outside Cairo’s presidential palace in December 2012. He would then face trial for allegedly breaking free from jail in 2011, which he would be sentenced to death for in 2015.
That sentence was overturned, but he was also sentenced to twenty years imprisonment for ordering the detention and torture of protesters in 2012. And life in prison for conspiring to commit terrorist acts with foreign organisations, plus forty years for leaking state secrets to Qatar. And a life sentence for spying for Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. It as though Stalin had held a show trial for Trotsky, but worried that the first trial wasn’t sensational enough, so he kept adding new trials to add to Trotsky’s rap sheet.
As for Morsi the politician, there are reasonable criticisms to be made of his rule. Yet the meaning of his death ultimately isn’t just about him. In 2011, Egypt was a country that offered hope to people across the region, and across the world people were inspired. Millions took to the streets, at considerable risk, and for too many, at considerable cost. In just two and a half years, the fight for democracy was reversed, if not entirely defeated. In 2011, Egypt brimmed with ideas for how it should be governed and the rules for government. As As’ad AbuKhalil observed, ‘the era of Mohammad Morsi had the widest freedoms of expression in Egyptian history ever.’
Egypt is not a symbol of hope now. It is a prison camp, ruled by a repressive thug, even more sycophantic to the US and Israel than Mubarak. Years of state terrorism have taken their toll. Many of the liberal secularists who celebrated the coup have either wound up in jail, fled the country, or decided they aren’t so interested in life as public intellectuals anymore.
In Australia, there has been no reckoning. The media and political class were not interested in the massacres or repression in Egypt, and so it was not a scandal when Abbott showered Sisi with praise. When Bob Hawke died, the media paid tribute to his emotional response to the Tiananmen Square massacre. When Sisi’s forces killed at least a thousand protesters at Rabaa al-Adiwiya, Abbott congratulated Sisi for his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.