'Egypt Is Turning Back Into Ancient Egypt'

Mohammed Morsi’s death sentence highlights the country’s reversion to old-fashioned authoritarian rule.

Ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi is seen behind bars during his trial at a court in Cairo May 8, 2014. (Reuters)

Just under three years ago, Mohammed Morsi assumed office as Egypt’s first freely elected head of state, a milestone in the “Arab Spring” struggle for democracy. On Saturday, the same Egyptian state condemned him to die. A court in Cairo has sentenced the former president to death for conspiring with foreign militants during a prison escape in 2011. The ruling comes one month after Morsi received a separate 20-year sentence for inciting violence against protesters while in office. Egyptian authorities have detained Morsi since his overthrow in July 2013.

The sentencing triggered international outrage. Amnesty International called the verdict a “charade based on null and void procedures” and demanded Morsi’s release or retrial. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president and an erstwhile supporter of Morsi, also condemned the decision.

“The popularly elected president of Egypt, chosen with 52 percent of the vote, has unfortunately been sentenced to death," he said at a rally in Istanbul.

“Egypt is turning back into ancient Egypt,” he added.

The country’s sudden and complete reversion to authoritarian rule, however, is a distinctly modern phenomenon. General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Egypt’s ruler since overthrowing Morsi in July 2013, has overseen a sustained crackdown of political opposition, recriminalizing membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and imprisoning thousands of Morsi supporters. In recent months, the al-Sisi regime has sentenced hundreds of people to death, including 100 others condemned alongside Morsi on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Morsi’s predecessor—the 87-year-old Hosni Mubarak—may soon win back his freedom. On May 8, an Egyptian court upheld a three-year sentence against the former dictator, who governed Egypt from 1981 to 2011, but said that prosecutors were considering releasing him due to time served. Mubarak’s sons Alaa and Gamal, arrested alongside their father in 2011, were released in January and have recently reappeared in public.

The United States, once a full-throated supporter of Egypt’s fledgling democracy, has quietly acquiesced to the country’s authoritarian revival. In March, President Obama lifted an arms freeze against Egypt and told Al-Sisi that the White House would support resuming $1.3 billion in annual military aid “in the interest of U.S. national security.”

Morsi’s eventual execution is by no means assured, and his case will likely undergo a lengthy, uncertain appeals process. The next step in the process, though, has been announced. On June 2, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, the country’s maximum Sunni Muslim authority, must decide whether Morsi will be executed. In a Shakespearean twist so familiar to Egyptian politics, the Grand Mufti was originally appointed by Morsi himself.