By Declan Walsh
Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was buried at dawn on Tuesday in a furtive and closely guarded ceremony attended by his wife and two sons.
Reporters were barred from the short ceremony and coverage of Mr. Morsi’s death was muted.
Only one major newspaper, Al Masry Al Youm, reported it on its front page, under a headline that failed to mention he was a former president. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has yet to make a public comment.
The stifled and uneasy reaction to the death of Mr. Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who collapsed and died in a Cairo courtroom on Monday, offered few indications about the legacy of a man who once represented the hopes for a democratic Egypt and has loomed in the background since his ouster by the military in 2013.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that swept Egypt’s first free elections and brought Mr. Morsi to power in 2012, has been driven deep underground by Egypt’s security forces. But the government’s response to his death was a telling indicator about the state of Egypt under the man who ousted him, Mr. el-Sisi, offering another dismal example of how the country has slid deeper into authoritarianism in recent years.
Within hours of Mr. Morsi’s death, Ahmed Moussa, a pro-government television news anchor, attacked him as a terrorist and a spy, and issued a warning to Morsi supporters who might protest on the streets. “To anyone who wants to bury this country: we will bury you first,” he said.
There were also signs, though, that the government was nervous about possible unrest in reaction to Mr. Morsi’s death. Coffeehouses in downtown Cairo were closed on Tuesday, apparently on official orders.
And Mr. Morsi’s burial was sequestered from public view.
The authorities refused a request by his family to bury him in his hometown in the Nile Delta, so the funeral took place at 5 a.m. in eastern Cairo, off limits to the public, two of his lawyers said.
Some former critics of Mr. Morsi, in Egypt and other Arab countries, set aside their political differences to register their disgust at the former president’s harsh treatment in prison, where Mr. Morsi spent the last six years of his life.
Hisham Melhem, a Lebanese-American journalist with the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya channel, said he doubted that Mr. Morsi had been fit to rule Egypt. But he was “not as brutal as those who preceded him or the monstrosity that toppled him,” Mr. Melhem said.
In a post on Twitter, Queen Noor of Jordan called Mr. Morsi the “only” democratically elected president in Egypt’s history — a seeming dig at Mr. el-Sisi, who won deeply flawed elections in 2014 and 2018.
Tunisia’s first post Arab Spring president, Moncef Marzouki, a secularist, wept on television when speaking of Mr. Morsi’s fate.
The contrasts between Mr. Morsi and Mr. el-Sisi were a reminder of the personal edge to the bitter rivalry that divided them.
After Mr. Morsi was elected president in 2012, he appointed Mr. el-Sisi, then a senior general, defense minister and head of Egypt’s armed forces.
In the months before the military seized power in July 2013, Mr. Morsi brushed off warnings that General el-Sisi might betray him. Photos from the time show a smiling General el-Sisi sitting opposite Mr. Morsi.
But once Mr. Morsi had been ousted, Mr. el-Sisi appeared to single him out for tough treatment that never let up.
Mr. Morsi’s lawyers say he was held for long periods in solitary confinement and allowed just three family visits in six years. They say the authorities denied Mr. Morsi medicines he desperately needed to treat his diabetes, high blood pressure and liver diseases — claims that have driven loud calls by human rights groups and the United Nations human rights office for an impartial investigation into his death.
Egypt’s government, which has promised a post mortem, is unlikely to meet those demands, and has lashed out at criticism of its record. On Tuesday, the State Information Service accused the New York-based Human Rights Watch of spreading lies about Mr. Morsi’s detention conditions and of seeking to exploit his death.
As Mr. el-Sisi tightened his grip on power in recent years, he has grown intolerant of even mild dissent. Thousands of political detainees fill Egypt’s prisons. The intelligence services manipulate Parliament and have direct control over the main television stations.
Mr. el-Sisi has basked in the approval of Western leaders like President Trump, who has received him warmly at the White House several times, and President Emmanuel Macron of France, who traveled to Egypt in January to sign multibillion-dollar arms deals.
Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has also been a regular visitor to Egypt in recent years as he seeks backing for a grand Middle East peace plan, long delayed and now on the back burner owing to Israel’s turbulent electoral politics.
Through that period Mr. Morsi languished in prison, occasionally brought to court to face a tangle of prosecutions. After his repeated outbursts against judges, the authorities built him a glass cage that allowed judges to silence his voice.
In leaked audio from one court hearing in 2017, Mr. Morsi complained of bright lights in the cage and being unable to see or hear his own lawyers.
“I don’t know where I am,” he said in the recording. “It’s steel behind steel and glass behind glass. The reflection of my image makes me dizzy.”
The Muslim Brotherhood has not fared much better.
Once a sprawling grass-roots organization with a reach across Egyptian society, the Brotherhood has been effectively shattered. Thousands of members and many of its leaders are being held in prisons where torture is rife.
Among those in exile, strong differences have emerged over how best to oppose Mr. el-Sisi.
One faction, based in Istanbul and dominated by younger Brotherhood members, seeks to fight Mr. el-Sisi openly through politics and to build common cause with secular Egyptians.
But the group’s main wing, which is dominated by older members and operates from London, advocates a more low-profile approach that involves waiting for Mr. el-Sisi to fall from power — even if that could take decades.
In an interview with The New York Times in a London suburb last month, the Brotherhood’s acting leader, Ibrahim Munir, 83, said that its main activity involved dispensing assistance to the families of prisoners in Egypt.
Declan Walsh is the Cairo bureau chief, covering Egypt and the Middle East. He was previously based in Pakistan.
The New York Times