Egypt's Revolution in Reverse

Mohammed Morsi has been sentenced to 20 years in prison, a former general is head of state, and charges against Hosni Mubarak have been dismissed—it's like 2011 all over again.

Hassan Ammar/AP

On January 28, 2011, a former top-ranking military official was leading a massive, authoritarian Egyptian government. Meanwhile, Mohammed Morsi was one of many officials of the banned Muslim Brotherhood who were imprisoned on political charges.

For a brief interlude after popular uprisings brought down Hosni Mubarak, Morsi served as the first democratically elected president of Egypt. But today a former general leads the government, and a court has just sentenced Morsi to 20 years in prison. The Muslim Brotherhood's political party is once again banned, and while Mubarak is still serving time in a military hospital—and it's not clear when he might be released—charges against him have been dismissed and his sons have been let out of jail. In important ways, the revolution that set out to topple Mubarak has taken a 360-degree turn back to where it started.

On January 30, 2011, Morsi escaped from prison, and in June 2012, he was elected president. His tenure was a rocky one—there were protests against him that December 2012 that forced him to flee the presidential palace, and in the summer of 2013 he was arrested by the military and deposed amid further protests. The new government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, former head of the army, put Morsi on trial, and on Tuesday, the former president was convicted of inciting violence and causing the torture of protestors outside the palace during the 2012 protests. He and 14 co-defendants were, however, acquitted on charges of murder related to the deaths of protestors. The case is an eerie echo of that brought against Mubarak, who was also charged with the deaths of those who protested against his regime—the ones who helped bring Morsi to power.

Morsi still faces charges that carry the death penalty. In another case, he's accused of working with Hamas and Hezbollah to destabilize Egypt, and he also stands accused of insulting the judiciary.

Having been deposed in what he called a military coup, Morsi adopted a strategy throughout the trial of refusing to acknowledge the Sisi-led government, insisting he remains the democratically elected leader of Egypt and treating the new regime as illegitimate. (The U.S. government declined to label Sisi's takeover a coup, but withheld military aid for more than a year due to what a White House statement called the "government crackdown.") Morsi railed against the court and the president during his trial, eventually being placed in a soundproof glass box. He is expected to appeal the verdict, but his beleaguered party also lashed out.

"Sentencing the president won't pass. The revolution will be ignited, popular anger will increase and we promise you unexpected revolutionary surprises," a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman warned on Twitter, according to CNN.

The former president of Egypt,
Mohammed Morsi (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

Morsi's presidency was not well-regarded domestically or abroad—he was criticized for cracking down on opponents, and some analysts felt that the Brotherhood, after years of acting as a semi-legal political and social movement, didn't adapt effectively to the challenges of actually running a country. Even so, international organizations decried his overthrow and criticized the outcome of his trial.

“This verdict shatters any remaining illusion of independence and impartiality in Egypt’s criminal-justice system,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui of Amnesty International said in a statement. “Any semblance of a fair trial was jeopardized from the outset by a string of irregularities in the judicial process and his arbitrary, incommunicado detention. His conviction must be quashed and the authorities must order a full re-trial in a civilian court or release him."

It's hard to know whether the Morsi verdict represents an important step in solidifying Sisi's rule and ratifying the return of the old system, or is just another move in an ongoing fight. For the time being, Morsi is going nowhere fast, but as Mubarak's journey from president to prisoner and into limbo shows, nothing is final in Egyptian politics.