Deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi fainted and died during an appearance in a Cairo court last month, part of an ongoing and likely politically motivated espionage case stemming from his escape from jail during the 2011 uprisings. The country’s first democratically elected president was unceremoniously buried the next morning in a public cemetery located in the capital, after Egyptian authorities refused his family’s request to bury him in the family plot in his hometown.
This was the most recent blow dealt against the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian government. Morsi’s forcible removal from office through a coup six years ago next month immediately initiated a wave of repression against the Brotherhood. By the end of 2013, the Brotherhood was banned from politics and named a terrorist organization.
Targeting the Muslim Brotherhood
My research shows that when opposition groups are repressed together, they form a common identity and unite against the regime. When opposition groups are repressed differently, they cling to other identities and are unwilling to work together. The Egyptian state’s targeted approach to repressing the opposition left it highly fractured after 2011.
This created divided political identities, and in particular a uniquely victimized Muslim Brotherhood identity. Divided identities facilitated high levels of disagreement, distrust, and polarization among political actors in 2011. This ultimately contributed to the quick derailment of Egypt’s transition, as political elites and partisans were unable to work together.
But recently, as repression has expanded and conditions for mobilization have deteriorated, one can see glimmers of unification among the Egyptian opposition.
State violence against the opposition
State violence peaked in the year following the coup, as the new Egyptian government sought to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood. By May 2014, the number of individuals arrested and prosecuted climbed over 40,000 — and the majority were accused of ties with the Brotherhood. Prominent Brotherhood leaders as well as thousands of Brotherhood members remain in state custody in the same squalid conditions as those in which Morsi was held, and hundreds more are in self-imposed exile abroad fearing for their safety.
Since 2013, Egyptians witnessed a renewed and revamped authoritarianism under former military general turned president Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. In recent years, the number of political prisoners has surpassed 60,000, and the Egyptian state has constructed at least 19 new prisons to house this rapidly growing population.
In addition to politically sidelining the Brotherhood, the regime has also repressed other opposition figures. Prominent secular opposition leaders live in exile, as do countless human rights activists, lawyers, artists, academics, and many of the youth activists who organized the 2011 protests.
In the lead-up to April 2018 presidential election, the Sisi regime jailed, deported or otherwise silenced any semblance of opposition. After Morsi’s death, the government has renewed arrests of secular and leftist opposition members, including lawyer Ziad el-Eleimy, a youth leader of the 2011 uprising who was also a former member of parliament with the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.
The regime has falsified charges to justify these recent arrests by fabricating a narrative of unlikely cooperation between these activists and the Brotherhood, though the arrests are more likely related to a meeting held by detainees to discuss plans to run in a joint opposition coalition in next year’s parliamentary elections.
This era of widespread repression is a new phase for the Egyptian state, and perhaps one implemented defensively as the new regime consolidates itself in the aftermath of destabilization. Since independence, the Egyptian state has largely taken a divide-and-conquer approach to opposition. Under President Anwar Sadat, the left suffered greatly while the Brotherhood was permitted to regroup after the repression of the Nasser regime and later co-opted. Under President Hosni Mubarak, ousted in the 2011 uprisings, state repression overwhelming targeted the Muslim Brotherhood.
There has been change in rhetoric and tone toward Morsi. Those who once opposed him and supported the military’s political intervention have found common ground over his mistreatment. A prominent politician in exile — one who sat onstage during the televised broadcast of SCAF’s seizure of power in symbolic support — tweeted a blessing for Morsi and his family, and followed it with an emphatic rebuke of the current government’s violence. An Egyptian human right’s organization — whose director previously had outlined the case against Morsi — called for an investigation into Morsi’s death, linking his ill-treatment to that of thousands of political prisoners.
This rhetoric is undoubtedly related to the change in the domestic repressive environment, from one targeted against the Brotherhood to one affecting nearly all politically mobilized groups. Groups of different ideological persuasions all feel they are victims of this regime, because they have all been affected by its repression. This is not to say that all political disagreements have disappeared, but rather than increasingly widespread and indiscriminate repression under Sisi might be altering the political stage among the opposition in Egypt.
History tells us that governments cannot repress every disloyal citizen everywhere all the time, and even the most repressive regimes eventually fall. In fact, political science research demonstrates that those nondemocratic regimes which are less repressive and more liberalized (albeit, in a controlled and superficial manner) tend to last longer.
The current Egyptian regime might be well served to consider this finding, if not for the moral and human rights implications, then for its own survival. The widespread repression unleashed against the opposition appears to be uniting these actors, unseen since the fleeting days of the revolution.
Elizabeth Nugent is an assistant professor of political science at Yale University.