Morsi’s Death in Egypt Puts Muslim Brotherhood Back in Focus

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CAIRO—The election of Mohammed Morsi as Egypt’s president seven years ago marked the height of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political power in the Middle East. His death in custody at 67 comes as the Islamist group struggles for relevance after a state crackdown on its supporters.

Mr. Morsi, who suffered a heart attack in a Cairo courtroom on Monday, was buried Tuesday in a cemetery in the capital amid heavy security after authorities barred his family from taking his body to their hometown in the country’s north, the former president’s son said on Facebook.

The funeral prayer, attended by a handful of people, was held in a mosque in Egypt’s Tora Prison, a compound that holds political prisoners.

The modest farewell for the former head of state shows how Egypt’s government refuses to allow even mild forms of political expression under the rule of President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who led the military’s removal of Mr. Morsi one year after he was elected in Egypt’s first and only free vote in 2012.

Most leaders of the Brotherhood, now an outlawed organization, are in prison or in exile after the government crushed nearly all forms of opposition. The Egyptian state has labeled the group as a terrorist organization and blamed it for violent attacks in the country.

An Egyptian police vehicle was parked inside the cemetery where Mr. Morsi was buried in Cairo on Tuesday. Security was tight surrounding the burial.


Photo:

khaled desouki/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The Brotherhood, which has affiliated groups and allies across the Middle East, also faces existential questions about its future in the region after the Trump administration in April said that it is considering branding the movement a foreign terrorist organization. That would hinder the Brotherhood’s ability to organize, even in exile in countries that support the group. Brotherhood offshoots serve in government in countries like Tunisia and Kuwait and like-minded Islamist groups participate in politics across the region. Mr. Morsi’s death spurred foreign ceremonies in his honor, from Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke, to Pakistan, attended by thousands.

Mr. Morsi’s death could be a turning point that spurs the movement to reorganize in Egypt and beyond after years of political infighting and time in exile, some Brotherhood supporters and affiliates say. His supporters accused the government of killing Mr. Morsi by denying him medical treatment during his nearly six years in prison. The government has denied the allegations.

“It will galvanize support yes, but not just for the Brotherhood, but more importantly it will galvanize support for the cause of getting rid of the tyrant regime in Egypt,” said Amr Darrag, a former minister of planning in Mr. Morsi’s government who now lives in exile in Turkey.

But even if the Brotherhood were to re-enter political life inside Egypt, it would have to contend with a public that remains deeply divided, recalling an era of polarization and chaos during Mr. Morsi’s year in power.

The entrance to the public graveyard where Mr. Morsi was quietly buried in Cairo.


Photo:

Nariman El-Mofty/Associated Press

Mr. Morsi’s election, a year after the 2011 revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, began a brief era of political freedom that lasted until the military takeover in 2013. But his time in office was a turbulent one as he sparred with rival institutions like the judiciary and faced opposition to an Islamist-backed constitution.

As if to diminish Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood even more, some Egyptian state media played down the news of his death, in some cases not even mentioning that he was a former president. The leading state newspaper Al-Ahram relegated the news of Mr. Morsi’s death to a small item in the crime section.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has been tremendously weakened and I don’t think there is any intention to allow them to make a comeback,” said Khaled Dawoud, the leader of an Egyptian opposition party who also backed the removal or Mr. Morsi.

Founded in Egypt in 1928 as a movement calling for the Islamization of society, the Muslim Brotherhood organized for decades in varying degrees of secrecy, attracting millions of members and sympathizers and many opponents.

The group has endured long periods of political repression in the past as well. After the government blamed the movement for a failed assassination attempt on President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1954, the state arrested thousands of Islamists and other political dissidents.

The Egyptian state eased restrictions on the group from the 1970s onward, eventually allowing some of its members to enter parliament as independents. The Brotherhood eventually took advantage of the 2011 revolution to win the presidency.

The Brotherhood’s offshoots include groups like the Palestinian Hamas movement that use violence. But the Egyptian Brotherhood’s leaders have long renounced violence, saying it is committed to peaceful social and political action.

Even the group’s critics suggest taking the long view when considering the group’s future, pointing to the movement’s proven ability to survive for years underground through clandestine networks.

“Many have written obituaries for the Brotherhood over the decades,” said Timothy Kaldas a Cairo-based political analyst with the independent Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.  “They have all proven to be wrong in the end.”

Write to Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com



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