CAIRO – After becoming Egypt’s first freely elected president in 2012, Mohammed Morsi hoped his Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement could emerge from decades of battle with the state and transform the country.
Barely a year into his presidency, Morsi was toppled by the army following mass protests and thrown into jail. The final act in his downfall came on Tuesday when an Egyptian judge sentenced Morsi to death.
Wearing his blue prison suit in a metal court cage, the bespectacled and bearded Islamist listened calmly as Judge Shaaban el-Shami read out the verdict in the case relating to a 2011 mass jailbreak.
Shami handed Morsi the death sentence along with five other Brotherhood leaders in that case. He also gave the former president a 25-year sentence in a case relating to conspiring with foreign groups.
Morsi’s court-appointed defense lawyer said he would appeal the death sentence.
The ruling marks another setback for leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and increases the chances of its youth taking up arms against the authorities, breaking a long tradition of nonviolence.
Morsi, accused by critics of abuse of power and mismanagement of the economy while in office, has been entangled in one legal case after another in unrelenting pressure against Islamists.
In this case, Morsi and fellow defendants including the Brotherhood’s top leader, Mohamed Badie, were convicted of killing and kidnapping policemen, attacking police facilities and breaking out of jail during the 2011 uprising against veteran President Hosni Mubarak.
The court also sentenced Brotherhood leader Khairat el-Shater and two others to death for conspiring with foreign militant groups.
Morsi’s big ambitions to create an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation” were short-lived after then army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi ousted him in 2013.
Al-Sissi, now elected president, has repeatedly portrayed the Brotherhood as a terrorist group that poses an existential threat to Egypt.
That message has been well received by many Egyptians whose desire for stability made them turn a blind eye to al-Sissi’s crackdown on Morsi and his supporters.
Morsi, 63, says he does not recognize the court cases stacked against him, describing them as part of a military coup that rolled back freedoms won in the 2011 uprising that ended Mubarak’s three-decade rule.
Other leaders of the Middle East’s oldest Islamist group are all behind bars.
Long Egypt’s main political opposition, the Brotherhood did not imagine until 2011 it could rule the country. Some say the decision to seek the presidency was a miscalculation.
While effective underground, it struggled to meet the desires of about 90 million Egyptians for better services and jobs, and Morsi was overthrown after a year in office by Mubarak’s former intelligence chief al-Sissi, who promised a road map to democracy.
Rumors that Morsi intended to give part or all of the Sinai Peninsula to the Palestinian militant group Hamas added to suspicions about him.
Following his fall in mid-2013, hundreds of Morsi supporters were shot dead at a Cairo protest camp and thousands of others were rounded up, dashing the hopes of detained Brotherhood leaders who hoped the unrest would break the army’s grip on power.
Morsi’s year-long tenure was Egypt’s only period of civilian rule since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952.
Egypt has defended its actions against protesters, saying they were given opportunities to disperse peacefully, and blamed Brotherhood militants for the violence. It says all defendants are given a fair trial by an independent judiciary.
The Brotherhood says it is still determined to win back power peacefully.
Western diplomats say Egyptian officials acknowledge privately that executing Morsi would be risky and are unlikely to carry out the sentences.