What Morsi’s Death Reveals About Turkey’s Own Moral Contradictions

Morsi’s sudden death at a courtroom in Cairo has sent shockwaves across the world, plunging Egypt into uncertainty and revealing perils of mistreatment of key figures in prison.

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Mohammad Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, appears at a court hearing. He died on Monday.

Egypt’s first democratically elected President Mohammad Morsi suddenly fell to the ground at a courtroom in Cairo on Monday. The authorities soon declared him dead and announced a nation-wide alarm against potential unrest over the death of the former president toppled after a bloody military takeover in 2013.

The whole world was, quite understandably, rattled by the news of Morsi’s death, something that could plunge the Arab World’s most populous country into a state of uncertainty. The growing resentment on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), especially after a clampdown on tens of thousands of its members since 2013, may eventually boil over. What kind of future beckons is beyond the grasp of any political sage or expert but it need not any great prudence to foresee hard times ahead.

The former president’s health has been deteriorating for quite some time due to subtle methods of mistreatment, inhumane solitary confinement and authorities’ denial of access to medical treatment. There were alarming signs there long before his death.

The Middle East Eye reported this last year:

“Mohamed Morsi is held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, sleeps on a cement floor, and has been permitted to see his family once in the past three years, a panel of British parliamentarians and international lawyers has found.”

After the news broke out on Monday, a senior HRW official told The New York Times:

“I think there is a very strong case to be made that this was criminal negligence, deliberate malfeasance in providing Morsi basic prisoner rights,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, said Monday. “He was very obviously singled out for mistreatment.”

She also tweeted that the HRW was about to complete an exhaustive and comprehensive report about Morsi’s worsening health. But, as it seems, it is too late and too little as none of the international calls over the past two years were effective enough to sway the Egyptian government’s policy toward the MB leadership.

Morsi’s unexpected death created nothing less than a sensation in Turkey where he was both admired and adored by the ruling party.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan conveyed heartfelt condolences to Morsi’s family while expressing his sadness. Presidential press office offered an elegantly crafted condolence message, citing to the poor prison conditions as the root cause of the Islamist president’s fall at the court hearing.

What Morsi’s Death Reveals About Moral Hypocrisy of Turkey’s Media

State-run Anadolu news agency and other media outlets ran extensive stories about how Morsi was treated inhumanely in prison. Although there is nothing wrong with these portraits of Egypt’s poorly managed prisons, one cannot fail to draw analogies and comparisons between Egypt and Turkey after seeing outcry of the pro-government Turkish media.

In Morsi’s death, the entire Turkish media blames the deliberate policy of the Egyptian authorities to punish MB inmates, including the former president, by keeping them in unendurable prison conditions.

The YeniSafak daily outlines the causes of Morsi’s death:

He stayed in a prison cell alone for 72 months.

Despite the deterioration of his health, he was unable to get medical treatment.

He was not allowed to see his family and close friends.

He was brought to courtroom in death suit (designed for inmates in death row).

But for a keen observer of the Turkish affairs, one can easily notice that such problems are far more endemic and deeper across Turkey’s prisons than in Egypt.

The moral contradictions of the pro-government media cannot be laid bare more palpably and visibly than its loud cry with regard to the Morsi case. While they rightfully fumed over the conditions that led up to Morsi’s death, they forgot the AKP government’s own record when it came to colossal rights abuses and massive crackdown to snuff out certain segments of the deeply fragmented society.

It was the same media which relished and exalted the sweeping purge (with the dismissal of more than 150,000 public workers with no semblance of any due process), the mass imprisonment of people on dubious charges and massive wealth grab. It needs to be remembered that there are more than 17,000 women who have no relation to the 2016 coup or any act of violence, and 750 babies in prison. Already more than 100 people lost their lives in jail, either due to suspicious conditions or denial of access to medical treatment despite reports from doctors and lawyers.

To illustrate the depth of this disconnect from reality, one further tweet may suffice. Kemal Ozturk, former General Director of Anadolu, fulminated on Twitter: “The demand to transfer the corpse of Mohammad Morsi to the family cemetery is rejected by the Egyptian authorities. No such a cruel, such a debased dictatorship has ever been seen…”

Bu a response to him reveals what is missing in the tweet”

“When the father of Gokhan Acikkollu [a teacher who tortured to death in police custody] asked for a space for his son in a graveyard, he was referred to the cemetery of traitors.

No such a brutal, no such debased dictatorship has ever been seen.

Pardon, this incident happened in Turkey!”

What Does Morsi Mean For Turkey’s Islamists?

Needless to say, the death of a leading figure of the Muslim Brotherhood struck a chord in Ankara. He was, after all, a symbol of victimhood after a military coup by General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi whose name became a byword for a ‘bloody military dictator’ for Morsi supporters in Turkey.

The removal of Morsi from power and the bloody assault on unarmed protesters in Rabia Square where nearly 1,000 MB members were mowed down by the troops have left a profound and enduring impact on the ruling AKP elites of Turkey who rely on common ideological forebears. What happened in Cairo certainly did not stay there. The tragedy of Muslim Brotherhood provided the much-needed narrative of victimhood for the AKP, which projected the crackdown against MB members in Egypt as if it took place against itself. This projection served to obscure the very fact it was the ruling power in Turkey (for 17 years now), not some underdogs on the side of the opposition as they were once during the late 1990s.

The Rabia massacre became something of a Tiananmen Square for regional Islamists, and not without reason. In Turkey, the Rabia sign, often invoked by President Erdogan during rallies and demonstrations, emerged as something of a badge of honor, displayed by MB sympathizers to protest the bloody crackdown and to pay homage to the fallen.

The Rabia came to represent martyrdom against brutal repression and gross injustice. The image of Esma, the daughter of a senior MB leader who was killed by a sniper, is repeatedly evoked as a saint and martyr.

In this emotional context, the AKP elites’ judgment of political events in most recent history, from Gezi Park protests to a corruption scandal in late 2013, was deeply influenced by the Egyptian clampdown on the MB. The AKP’s view of history has become warped and distorted, driven by political fear rather than objective assessments. And the 2016 coup provided the AKP what it longed for: victimhood.

The Ideological Shift in Turkish Foreign Policy and MB Rule in Egypt

The Turkish foreign policy toward Egypt represents a certain break in the republican tradition of non-intervention in other countries’ internal affairs. The policy was shaped more by ideological affiliation than by realistic and interest-oriented approach.

The AKP administration cast aside the usual channels of diplomatic dialogue and mutual interests with the Egyptian state just to endorse a certain political party and social group in that country. Regardless of the merits of its moral stance in the face of the military coup against Morsi, the AKP government simply elevated a domestic Egyptian actor (Brotherhood) above the level of the Egyptian state, fusing its emotional and ideological affinity to the formation of Turkey’s foreign policy in a way never seen before. And time stranded in 2013 regarding bilateral ties as mutual diplomatic representation soon broke down in an acrimonious and antagonistic fashion. The efforts to restore ambassadors back to their vacant posts ran headlong into each countries’ domestic political compositions susceptible to public sentiment.

In the first years of the Arab Spring, Egypt became a proxy battleground for a diplomatic tug of war between certain regional countries; Turkey and Qatar on the one side, backing the MB, while Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, on the other hand, aligning with the Sisi regime in Cairo. Ankara’s Middle East policy, through the prism of its MB-oriented position, increasingly began to be shaped by ideological preferences rather than Turkey’s strategic needs and interests. Egypt, Syria and Libya became the venues where Turkey took direct and active part to steer the course of events during the hazy days of Arab Spring. In the first case, Turkey’s calculations and policies crumbled; in the second, an unending and detrimental entanglement appears to deplete whatever left of Turkey’s diplomatic and military energy in the region, while the last case may leave Turkey vulnerable to credible charges of international arms shipments to some radical groups suspiciously viewed by the West and the world.

Egypt, in a sense, exposed both Turkey’s potential reach and the limits of its power. But Ankara seemed to get the wrong lessons from the MB tragedy. Instead of recalibrating and repositioning its regional policies in a new retrenchment to the traditional Republican policy of non-interventionism, Turkey directly sent its troops to Syria in 2016 summer to shape the contours of the protracted civil war there. On the domestic front, instead of reaching out to political opponents, Erdogan’s party only cemented its iron fist on power, undermining pillars of democracy and the rule of law.

It all started with the MB’s political triumph in Egypt in the early phase of the Arab Spring. But it never ended there after the downfall of the MB. Irrespective to the moral debate over the MB’s perceived “controversial” rule and the legitimacy of Sisi’s subsequent administration, Turkey should have not allowed itself to be lured by the transnational appeal of political Islam and Brotherhood-first policy. This put Turkey into a bind in Libya, in Egypt, in Syria and elsewhere, with no prospect for resolution of that deadlock appears in the offing.

This reading does not mean relinquishing the moral stance of opposing repression of people and assaulting unarmed protesters, be it in Rabia in 2013 or in Sudan today. But Turkey’s own record at home over the past several years, its brutal targeting of opponents of any social conviction and political affiliation, the massive purge without due process deprives the Turkish Islamists of any moral high ground to lecture the West or the government in Cairo over what happened in Egypt.

To do this, and for good reason, the Turkish leadership should first look at the mirror and release all political prisoners some of whom languish in solitary confinement for years on end.

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