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Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s First Freely Elected Leader, Dies In Courtroom

2019-6-17

Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's former president and the country’s first freely elected leader, collapsed in court during trial Monday and died.

The 67-year-old Muslim Brotherhood leader was being tried on charges of spying. He had just spoken from a glass cage, where he was kept during trial. He warned the court that he had "many secrets" he could tell, a judicial official said. Minutes later, Morsi collapsed, the official said.

The official spoke on the condition he not be identified, as he was not empowered to talk to the press.

Morsi rose to office in the country's first free elections in 2012, and was ousted a year later by the military.

In his final comments, Morsi continued to claim he was Egypt's legal president and demanded a special tribunal, one of his lawyers told the Associated Press. State TV said Morsi died before he could be taken to the hospital.

The Muslim Brotherhood accused the government of murdering Morsi, through years of mistreatment in prison. Morsi had been imprisoned since 2013. He was known to have diabetes.

Morsi was often kept separated from other prisoners and barred from visitors. His family was permitted to visit him only three times over a six-year period.

Egypt's chief government lawyer said Morsi's body would be examined to determine the cause of his death.

Monday marked a dramatic end to the life of a man central to Egypt’s often-changing path since its revolution. It began with the 2011 democracy uprising that ousted the country’s longtime dictatorial ruler, Hosni Mubarak.

In this May 20, 2012 file photo, then Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi holds a rally in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Fredrik Persson, File)
In this May 20, 2012 file photo, then Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi holds a rally in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Fredrik Persson, File)

Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful Islamist group, won the elections held after Mubarak's fall. First, they gained a majority in parliament. Then, Morsi saw victory in presidential elections held in 2012. He was the first civilian to hold the office in Egypt.

Critics accused the Brotherhood of using violence against opponents and seeking to hold all power. Massive protests grew against their rule.

In July 2013, the military — led by then-Defense Minister, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — ousted both Morsi and parliament. Later, the new leaders described the Brotherhood as a "terrorist group."

El-Sissi was elected president and then re-elected in 2018. Human rights groups have sharply criticized the 2018 vote as undemocratic.

El-Sissi has carried out a campaign to crush the Brotherhood as well as almost all other dissent. Egyptian security forces have arrested tens of thousands of people. The government has banned protests and silenced most criticism in the media.

Since his ouster, Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders have been put on several lengthy trials. Morsi was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of ordering Brotherhood members to end a protest against him, resulting in deaths. Many other cases are still to be tried.

Monday's hearing was part of a retrial, held inside Cairo's Tora Prison. Morsi was held in a special area in Tora called Scorpion Prison. Rights groups say its conditions fall far below Egyptian and international prison standards.

Hosni Mubarak was permitted to stay in a military hospital for his trials on several charges. He was also cleared of charges and released. He died in 2011.

Sarah Leah Whitson is Middle East director with the Human Rights Watch. She said in a tweet Monday that Morsi's death was "terrible but entirely predictable." She accused the government of failing to permit Morsi satisfactory “medical care, much less family visits."

Mohammed Sudan is the leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood in London. He said Morsi was not provided the medicine he needed or permitted visitors.

"This is premeditated murder. This is slow death," he said.

The judicial official said Morsi had asked to speak to the court Monday. The judge permitted it. Morsi gave a speech saying he had "many secrets." But, he said he would not tell such secrets because the information would harm Egypt's national security.

His lawyer said Morsi spoke for around five minutes -- "very calm and organized" -- before collapsing inside the cage.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry did not answer calls seeking comment.

Morsi was an engineer by profession who studied at the University of Southern California. He was never considered a major thinker in the Brotherhood but instead rose in the group as an effective loyalist.

The group named him as its presidential candidate in 2012 after Egypt barred a more powerful member from seeking office.

Early in his presidency, Morsi expressed some support of the pro-democracy activists who led the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. But opponents began to accuse the Brotherhood of hijacking the revolution and trying to establish Islamist rule.

Major protests began, especially over the process of writing a new constitution. Critics said the Brotherhood was permitting Islamists to write the document largely on their terms. Brotherhood supporters reacted violently to some protests.

Then, the military stepped in. Critics called the move an overthrow, but el-Sissi's supporters said the public supported the action.

The military campaign that followed almost fully destroyed the Brotherhood. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands imprisoned. At the same time, pro-democracy activists were also crushed.

In a recording released from a 2017 trial, Morsi said that he was "completely isolated" from the court, unable to see or hear his defense team.

"I don't know where I am," he can be heard saying in the audio. "It's steel behind steel and glass behind glass. The reflection of my image makes me dizzy."

I’m Caty Weaver.

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

The Associated Press reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

cage - n. a box made of wire or metal bars in which people keep animals or birds

tribunal - n. a kind of court that has authority in a specific area

dramatic - adj. sudden and extreme

dissent - n. public disagreement with an official opinion, decision, or set of beliefs

satisfactory - adj. good enough for a particular purpose

premeditated - adj. done or made according to a plan : planned in advance

isolated - adj. separate from others

reflection - n. an image that is seen in a mirror or on a shiny surface

dizzy - adj. feeling that you are turning around in circles and are going to fall even though you are standing still