Will Egypt send Morsi to the gallows?

Death sentence of deposed president was upheld, but analysts are skeptical he will ever hang

Egypt’s court decision on Tuesday to uphold the death sentence against deposed President Mohamed Morsi for his alleged role in a series of jailbreaks and deadly attacks on police during the 2011 uprising means the country could soon carry out the first execution of an ex-head of state since Iraq hanged Saddam Hussein in 2006. But analysts say there is reason to be skeptical that Egypt will actually proceed with Morsi’s sentence — a risky move that would transform him into a martyr for the Muslim Brotherhood and its political allies.

Morsi, who rose to power in Egypt's first democratic elections in 2012 before being swiftly toppled by a second military-backed uprising the following year, was first sentenced to death last month along with more than 100 other defendants who faced similar charges. His trial, widely decried as a sham by international observers, was part of the wave of sweeping reprisals the government of current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has taken against the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters since Sisi’s military council took over the country. Hundreds of Brotherhood supporters (as well as pro-democracy activists) have been sentenced to death in mass trials, while the Brotherhood itself has been branded a “terrorist organization.”

Tuesday’s ruling, which was reached after consultation with Egypt’s grand mufti, underlined the Brotherhood's shocking rise and fall. The group’s supporters, who were oppressed for decades under dictator Hosni Mubarak until his demise in 2011, heralded Morsi's unlikely election in 2012 as a crowning achievement for the pan-Islamic political movement. They consider Sisi's takeover just one year later to be an illegal military coup, with many clinging to the remote hope that their democratically elected leader might one day be returned to power. Executing Morsi would extinguish that prospect and, many Sisi supporters argue, close the book on the Brotherhood's brief resurgence.

But analysts are not so sure. Many argue that turning Morsi into a martyr will only outrage and embolden the Brotherhood further, potentially spurring more peaceful or even violent protests. That narrative is favored by the Brotherhood itself, which has called for a popular uprising on Friday and declared Morsi’s latest sentence “null and void.”

Brotherhood spokesman Nader Oman, in an interview with Al Jazeera, promised resilience no matter the outcome. “The Muslim Brotherhood is an organization that has gone on for more than 80 years. Imprisoning our leaders will not stop us from fighting,” he said.

The strong-fisted Egyptian government will likely take that claim seriously. After the first sentence against Morsi was announced in May, the Brotherhood released a similar statement that portrayed him and the movement as the last defenders of Egypt’s post-Mubarak democracy. It called on supporters “to escalate revolutionary defiance activities every day until together we defeat the junta and topple the illegitimate military coup regime." Whether that was meant as a call to arms is unclear, but just a few hours later, three Egyptian judges were gunned down in the Sinai peninsula, where a group allegedly affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has waged a string of suicide attacks on security forces.

According to Mohamad Bazzi, a professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday, “That is another danger of an authoritarian government’s demonizing all Islamists as terrorists who must be suppressed: It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sisi’s actions prove to those who advocate violence that it is the only path. Ultimately, some Islamists will conclude that the only way to protect themselves and achieve power is by taking up arms.”

Others say Egypt’s foreign backers, especially the United States, would not allow the former president to be put to death after such a flawed trial. Sisi has so far met minimal outside resistance to his crackdown, including mainly verbal reprimands from Washington, which, Sisi's critics say, has chosen stability over democracy by continuing to inject Egypt with $1.3 billion in annual military aid. But some say putting Morsi to death would be a bridge too far, and that it might be politically savvier to simply let him rot in jail.

“It seems more likely that [Sisi] would try to maintain leverage both with the Brotherhood and also with Western governments, who would be shocked at the execution of a former president and political rival,” said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

There is also reason to believe a broader domestic reaction would arise from not only Brotherhood supporters but wide swathes of Egyptian civil society. Many of those who backed the second uprising against Morsi, who was accused of consolidating power and willfully undermining Egypt's nascent democracy, have come to view Sisi in a similar vein. Executing his former political rival would only bolster his image as an anti-democratic military strongman.

"It would have a profoundly polarizing effect on Egypt,” Alterman said. Far from closing a turbulent chapter in Egypt, "I think it would more likely open a new one."

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