Only one ruler of Egypt since the country became a republic in 1953 died a normal death. None has retired in peace. On Monday June 17, deposed President Mohammed Morsi added a sad chapter to the sorry saga of Egypt. While he was kept in a cage in an Egyptian court in Cairo, the ancient capital of this benighted country, he collapsed and died.
In its more than 3000 years of history, Morsi was the first person to be freely elected as ruler of Egypt. His political and social policies as president alarmed his neighbours and his failed economic management style inflamed passion at home, igniting one of the biggest uprising since long-term dictator, Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011.
Ironically, it was the same kind of revolt that propelled Morsi to power at the head of the Muslim Brotherhood. When the enemy forces closed in, Morsi realised he had few friends and fewer options. His military commanders, led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, have sided with the opposition and they seized him from the presidential palace and hurled him into prison.
Though 91 percent of Egyptians are Muslims, the country is more like a secular European country. Eight percent of the people are Christians, mostly Coptic and there are also Egyptians who are Jews and adherents of other religions. In this potpourri are also minorities who are Greeks, Nubians, Berbers, Italians and Armenians. In his months in power, Morsi tried to re-assert the dominance of Islamic heritage of Egypt thereby reviving ancient fault lines of religion and ethnicity. Many Egyptians believed this could not happen in their country until the Muslim Brotherhood came to power with Morsi at their head. Within one year, Morsi romance with power ended in a fiasco.
Since July 3, 2013, Morsi had been in detention and mostly in solitary confinements. His foes were ungraceful, brutal and vicious. They would not allow him visitors and for all these past years, his family were permitted to visit him only thrice. Though he was diabetic and hypertensive, his jailors would not allow him access to doctors of his own choice. Each time he had appeared in court, he had peered at the proceedings from behind an iron cage. I still cannot understand why a former president had to be kept in a cage. It is simply wicked.
The argument was that Morsi was the leader of a blood-thirsty bunch of fundamental Islamists. He was the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood which for many decades had opposed the autocratic rule of President Hosni Mubarak. When Morsi won the presidential election in 2013, he tried to bring the Muslim Brotherhood into the mainstream of Egyptian politics and governance. Within a year, Morsi’s style of governance had bred accusations that he was promoting religious intolerance and fundamentalism.
At the time of his death, Morsi was standing trial for espionage because of what the state called his relationship with the radical Palestinian Islamic movement, Hamas. His death did not lead his foes to forgive him. Though he was standing trial, he had not been convicted, yet the state refused to release his body for burial. His family was not allowed to take his body home so that he could sleep among his ancestors. Instead they took him to a cemetery in Cairo where members of the Muslim Brotherhood bury their dead. It was an un-presidential obsequies.
The United Nations and many human right bodies have called for an independent enquiry into the death of Morsi. His family said he had suffered torture and humiliation while in solitary confinement. It was as if he was programmed for death.
Morsi’s fate is an indication of the unforgiving nature of power contest in Africa and the Arab world. Here was a man betrayed by his closest advisers and military commanders who were not satisfied with just toppling him from power. They were bent on destroying him and his followers. Since he was toppled, more than 100,000 Egyptians have been detained and imprisoned on political grounds. Thousands have died in politically related violence, especially members of the Muslim Brotherhood. During the last presidential elections, most of the opposition candidates were forced to withdraw, some were thrown into jail or hounded into exile.
Losing power in Africa is sometimes worse than death. Only two men have experience that in Egypt since the country became a republic in 1953: Morsi and his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. After King Farouk was toppled in 1952 by the military, he was succeeded briefly by General Mohammed Naguib. The Naguib interregnum soon ended when Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser edged him out in a palace coup. Nasser, who led his country into war thrice against Israel and lost three times, was regarded as a great hero in the Arab world. He died suddenly in 1970 and was succeeded by his vice-president, Anwar Sadat.
Sadat was to have great influence on Nigeria by the manner of his death. He had signed an historic peace pact with Israel and in an unexpected bold moved had travelled to Jerusalem and Tel Avis. He was given the unprecedented honour of addressing the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. This was seen as an abomination by many people in the Arab world who regarded, and still regard, Israel, as an enemy state foisted on the Middle-East by the world powers after the Second World War. Sadat was reviewing a military parade in Cairo when parts of the honour guards, broke rank and rained bullets at him on October 6, 1981. He died instantly. Hosni Mubarak, his vice-president who was also present at the parade, survived.
Sadat died when Alhaji Shehu Shagari was the President of Nigeria. The manner of Sadat’s death rattled political leaders all over the world including Nigeria. Many top politicians were afraid of the Sadat treatment. They would show up at state functions wearing bullet-proof vests under their flowing agbada. With this new accoutrement, even the lankiest fellow became heavy-chested! President Shehu Shagari, despite pressures from his aides, refused to wear bullet-proof vest.
The Morsi saga also exposes the state of the legal system in Africa. The Egyptian judiciary, apparently hand-in-glove with the executive, did not see anything wrong with bringing a former President in a cage to face trial. Moreover, the case had been going on year after year and there was no indication that it would ever have an end. It was like what we had in the past when Chief Obafemi Awolowo was brought to court in a Black Maria prison lorry. Chief Moshood Abiola too was to face the same treatment under General Sani Abacha.
In Nigeria of today however, the politicians have domesticated the court process to the extent that corruption trials seems to last a life time. There have been politicians who have been facing trials since President Olusegun Obasanjo left power in 2007. Many of them are sitting pretty in the National Assembly.
The court instead of being an arbiter of political contests, have become part of the fray in many African countries. It often takes side blatantly with those who have seized the reign of power. The results have been war and ethnic conflicts in several African countries. Egypt is now in the throes and the crisis is not about to end. The death of Morsi also signals another milestones in the sad and proud history of Arab’s greatest country.
As Morsi’s fate indicated, losing out in the power game in Africa has dire consequences. Things are better now than in the days of yore when Africa was dominated by strong men who brook no opposition. Dialo Telli, the first Secretary General of the Organisation of African Unity, was a Guinean of exceptional skill and eloquence. He had influence. Then he retired home in Conakry and got interested in his country politics. It was a fatal error. He was arrested in 1977 and charged to court for treason. In the end, the judge looked him in the face and solemnly sentenced him to death by starvation. He was taken to an underground cell to serve his sentence in June 1978. Few weeks later, prison cleaners carried his remains away.
– Babarinsa is a respected columnist