Morsi’s death sentence signifies the end of one iteration of the Arab Spring, but the outcome of the next could be vastly different.

On Saturday, May 16, 2015, the Egyptian justice system sentenced Muhammad Morsi, the former President of Egypt and Muslim Brotherhood leader, to death. Morsi was not the only beneficiary of this sentence; close to one hundred other defendants received the same fate. With a defiant Morsi chanting anti-government sentiments while his punishment was delivered, Morsi’s death sentence effectively brought to an end the Egyptian chapter of the Arab Spring.

The major charge against Morsi that warranted this sentence was that he had conspired with Hamas and Hezbollah for the purposes of agitation in Egypt during the 2011 uprising popularly termed the Arab Spring. The secondary charge against Morsi was for his escape from prison after being arrested by Egyptian security services during this uprising. Both the charges and Morsi’s sentence appear rife with irony, and seem as if they were intended to send a clear and unmistakable message to Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The most transparent aspect of both charges and sentence is the solidarity the regime of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi wishes to show with previously deposed President Hosni Mubarak, both being former member of Egypt’s Air Force. Mubarak was charged, found guilty, and received a life sentence in 2012 for conspiring to kill protestors advocating his overthrow from 2011; however in 2013, the Court of Cassation, the highest court in Egypt’s judicial system that deals with final appeals in both criminal and civil matters, overturned this verdict and ordered a re-trial in 2013.  In November of 2014, the charge was dropped against him. Subsequently, he was also cleared of all embezzlement charges he was previously facing. He is currently believed to be in residence at a military hospital in Cairo.[1]

Also of note here is the Iran connection. It is difficult to ignore the fact that the groups Morsi was accused of conspiring with are funded by Iran. The case relating to Hamas is arguably the most interesting, as in the eyes of the Sisi administration, Hamas is considered to be a satellite of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The implication by the administration is that because Hamas essentially equates to the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood has supplied funding to Hamas, thereby providing more than just an ideological connection between them.[2] This also links the Muslim Brotherhood, and by default Morsi as its previous leader, with a known terrorist group.  This shrewd connection by the Sisi administration added ammunition to the case against Morsi, while stoking popular sentiment against a visible foe.

These particular charges, and the myriad others levied against the Brotherhood and Morsi in particular, belie the most important and far-reaching outcome of Morsi’s sentence: death to Egypt’s first democratically elected President also signals death to Egypt’s Arab Spring, a movement which planted the nascent seeds of democracy there. In other words, the Arab Spring in Egypt has now been criminalized.

This is, in a very real sense, a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions. For all of its simultaneous chaos and bedazzlement, the Arab Spring was an event that demonstrated the will of the people- the people’s displeasure with the Mubarak government, a government that was in essence a dictatorship peppered with corruption as well as social and human rights violations, as well as their want for a new leader. In essence, change within the social and political economies.

The Arab Spring led, in fact, to the eventual deposing of Mubarak. Shortly thereafter, the idea of a democracy which was planted bore fruit: the first free democratic elections in Egypt in the modern era. This was an enormously important development, as since the Free Officers Coup in 1952-53, there have only been five presidents of Egypt, none of whom were democratically elected.

However, in a twist of fate, the Egyptians who did participate in the first free Presidential election voted into office a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a long outlawed but still functioning Islamist group. Muhammad Morsi, running as the candidate from the Freedom and Justice Party—the plausibly deniable Brotherhood political party—then proceeded to govern with a unilateral political agenda. This agenda reflected both a desire to overturn governmental modifications instituted by the military and the influence of the Brotherhood itself. Included among other things were a Presidential power consolidation, the re-writing and re-structuring of the Egyptian constitution, a Parliament dissolution/re-institution quagmire, and the allowance and toleration of the persecution of minority groups to occur at the hands Brotherhood.

In short order the economy virtually collapsed and once again sent people into the streets to protest, as is their right. This protest was certainly viewed as more than just a protest by the Egyptian armed forces. A coup by the military took place, which concluded in the removal of Morsi and replaced him with another Mubarak-like figure. Hence in the span of two short years, Egypt had come full circle.

Does Morsi’s death sentence mean that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is no longer a viable political and social entity? Perhaps for the time being, but given their historical paradigm for rebounding from political sanction and re-inventing themselves, we have not seen nor heard the last of the Brotherhood.

Does Morsi’s death sentence mean that Egypt’s Arab Spring is over? In a word, yes. The whirlwind trajectory of the events from 2011 to 2013 led to macro-failure of Egypt’s first attempt at democracy. It is not necessarily that the democratic ideals failed, but rather the choice of President elected (his political affiliation and agenda), and the remnant of the underlying state structure from the Nasser to Mubarak era that survived the Arab Spring were on an ideological collision course. Under these conditions, the macro-ideals of a democratic system that were implemented with a lightning fast pace had little chance of survival. It would appear in this instance, then, that death to Morsi equals death to the Arab Spring.

But most importantly, does Morsi’s death sentence mean that the democratic movement in Egypt is over? In all probability, no. While democracy’s macro ideal situationally failed, the same cannot necessarily be said of the micro ideals. While the Arab Spring in Egypt did produce a President, albeit with an Islamist ideological and political bent, the most important aspect to recognize here is that it did produce a President—a freely and democratically elected President, though admittedly with problems such as low voter turnout.

If Sisi governs as Mubarak and his predecessors did, it remains unlikely that he will relinquish the office of President to anyone via democratic process. However, that does not mean that the embers of democracy have been snuffed out completely amongst the Egyptian people. Hence while Morsi’s death sentence signifies the death of the Arab Spring, it only signifies the end of that version of the Arab Spring.  The outcome of its next iteration could be vastly different.


[1] BBC, 16 May 2015, What’s become of Egypt’s Morsi?

[2] Laub, Zachary.  CFR Backgrounder: Hamas. 1 August 2014