Ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has died, Egyptian state television reported Monday, after fainting during a Cairo court session.
As Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Morsi led the country for one polarizing year. He was ousted by the military in 2013 following mass protests. Since then, he has been in custody and has faced a series of trials that have been criticized by rights groups. Morsi, 67, hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood group, which is now banned in Egypt.
“His legacy, I’m afraid, will be a mixed legacy — divided among the people within Egypt itself,” Khaled Fahmy, a professor of modern Arabic studies at the University of Cambridge, tells NPR.
“He will be seen by the millions of followers of the Muslim Brotherhood as a beleaguered, entrapped, nearly tragic figure whose tenure was cut short, who stood up to his principles, who paid a very heavy price for playing according to the rules of democracy,” Fahmy says. “But he will be seen by millions of other Egyptians as a head of a clandestine organization that didn’t really have the best interests of Egypt in mind but answered to some other higher principles.”
The deposed leader requested permission to speak in court on Monday afternoon, which the judge granted, according to a statement from Egypt’s public prosecutor. After he spoke, Morsi fell to the ground inside the cage where defendants are held during Egyptian trial proceedings.
He was dead by the time he arrived at the hospital, the public prosecutor said, adding that there “were no visible, recent external injuries on the body of the deceased.” Authorities say they will seize surveillance footage in court for review and question others who were with him in the cage.
Ashraf Omran, a member of Morsi’s defense team who was in court when he died, told NPR that the account put out by the Egyptian government accurately describes the former president’s last minutes — he spoke and then died shortly afterward.
Omran said that when Morsi spoke in court, he said he loved Egypt, even though it had oppressed him. Morsi also said he was Egypt’s legitimate president and didn’t recognize the authority of the court to try him, according to his lawyer.
“President Morsi had been having health troubles basically since the very beginning of his confinement, and he had countless requests for health treatment, which were routinely denied, and whatever medical treatment he received was felt to be extremely inadequate by his family,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch, told NPR.
The Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement accusing Egyptian authorities of killing Morsi slowly for many years by denying him treatment.
Before he entered the political scene, Morsi was an engineering professor in Egypt and at California State University, Northridge.
Following the 2011 uprising that overthrew Egypt’s longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the country’s best-organized political force. Morsi became the candidate for the Brotherhood’s political arm after the group’s first choice was disqualified. In 2012, he took office after narrowly beating a candidate from the previous regime.
This kicked off a turbulent year in power, during which he was often at odds with Egypt’s powerful military.
The Brotherhood and the military “are two institutions that have been at loggerheads basically for the past century,” Fahmy says. “They think that this country, this milk cow, is theirs for the last drop of milk to be milked out of it. … It is impossible to have had any other relationship but deep enmity.”
But it wasn’t just the military — Morsi faced opposition from many state institutions full of employees from the past government. Fahmy says the bureaucracy, intelligence services and the judiciary, among others, were all intent on “causing him to fail in his presidency.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, the historian adds, also struggled to transform itself from “a proselytizing charity institution to being in power.”
In late 2012, Morsi alarmed many when he issued a decree that gave him sweeping new powers. Weeks later, a controversial Islamist-backed constitution passed a popular referendum.
Popular opposition to Morsi came to a head in June 2013, when huge crowds rallied against him across the country. The military ousted him days later, saying it was correcting the course of Egypt’s revolution.
Security forces later forcibly cleared two sit-ins of Morsi’s supporters in Cairo, killing hundreds of people. Human Rights Watch has estimated that at the dispersal of one of those sit-ins, at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, “security forces, following a plan that envisioned several thousand deaths, killed a minimum of 817 people and more likely at least 1,000.”
Morsi’s defense minister, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, led the coup and would later become president. He could now remain in office for 11 more years, after voters approved constitutional changes in a referendum this year.
Sissi has led a sweeping crackdown against Morsi’s supporters and many others who disagree with his policies. Human rights groups say tens of thousands of people have been jailed for political reasons, a claim that Sissi has denied.
Morsi had been sentenced to death for taking part in a prison break during the 2011 uprising and had also faced trial for conspiring with foreign powers, among numerous other charges.
Human Rights Watch reviewed the prosecution’s case file summaries in the two main cases against him. “We found the trials lacked evidence and appear to be entirely politicized and tied to the fact that there was a military coup that forcibly removed him from office,” Whitson said.
“He was being held in very extreme conditions and solitary confinement almost the entire time of his captivity,” she added, with very few opportunities to see his family.