Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, appeared in court Monday to stand trial—the culmination of weeks of arrests and violent clashes in a nation bitterly divided since the military staged a coup in July amid popular protests against Morsi’s rule.
A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which saw significant electoral gains following the removal of Hosni Mubarak, Morsi has been virtually cut off from the outside world and held at a secret location since his arrest. He is charged with inciting his supporters to attack and kill opposition protesters at clashes outside the Presidential Palace in Cairo last December, which left 10 people dead. Lawyers familiar with the Egyptian judicial system say the maximum sentence for incitement of murder can be a life sentence or death.
The trial was adjourned to January 8 after Morsi refused to wear the obligatory prisoner’s uniform—instead wearing a suit—and interrupted with outbursts declaring: “I am the legitimate president of the Republic,” state media reported. Morsi is to be tried along with 14 other senior officials of the Muslim Brotherhood. The defendants, who were being held in a cage in the courtroom, chanted "illegal, illegal!" as the proceedings took place. Morsi is separately accused of escaping from prison during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. The judge decided on Sunday not to broadcast the trial live for security reasons.
Outside the court, small protests of some 150 people, gathered in support of Morsi and the other defendants. Small scuffles erupted in spurts, but no significant violence was reported. A number of journalists covering protests outside the police academy court in Cairo were targeted as pro-Morsi demonstrators vented their anger by attacking video camera platforms and television news trucks. As many as 20,000 security personnel had been readied to guard the courthouse where the Brotherhood officials will stand trial. Many schools closed Monday as a security precaution.
Over the weekend, thousands of pro-Morsi demonstrators gathered in cities small and large to voice anger over the trial. They chanted slogans and flashed four fingers, which has come to symbolize a pro-Morsi camp violently quashed by the authorities. In a suburb of Alexandria, police used tear gas as groups of Morsi supporters clashed with their opponents. “If these traitors listen to the majority of people in Egypt you will find that most of the people in the streets are asking for Morsi back,” said Mohammed Baloush, 38, a Morsi supporter.
Online, the Twitter hashtag #FreeMorsi has, for weeks, aired the cries of supporters from countries as far as Indonesia, Pakistan, France and the U.S. One Twitter post, under the handle Malcolm X, quotes the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King under the #FreeMorsi hashtag: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Cairo Sunday for his first visit since Morsi’s ouster amid growing tensions between the two fair-weather allies. The Obama administration faced a predicament over whether to condemn Morsi’s removal as a coup and cut the annual $1.3 billion in U.S. military assistance, only to partially suspend it in the end. Egypt's Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said on Saturday that his country would start to look beyond Washington to meet its security needs, citing the “turbulent” state of U.S.-Egypt affairs.
In late June, millions of protesters flooded the streets to mark Morsi’s first year in office by demanding his removal in what was, by far, the largest protests seen since the initial 2011 uprising. The protesters—many of whom admitted to voting for Morsi—accused the Muslim Brotherhood of hijacking the revolution from its youth and secular groups, then monopolizing power and attempting to impose Islamic law through intimidation.
Others pointed to the country’s economic downfall, which had manifested itself in a range of ways, from lost jobs to power cuts and gas shortages the likes of which had not been seen in decades. “I took part in the June 30 protests, but I am not happy with the way things are going now,” said Yehia El Gammal, a political activist and member of the secular Dostour Party, founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohammed ElBaradei. “Many drastic measures need to be taken by the current government. Unemployment is rising. Education is ‘zero.’ The security situation is catastrophic. They don’t want to hear anything about restructuring the Ministry of Interior.”
The sense of irony that has stalked Egypt’s tumultuous attempts at transition since the 2011 uprising reaches a new peak with the trial of the Brotherhood officials. Although the group burned many bridges during its time in power, it still holds a significant command on the streets. General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, handpicked by Morsi to head the military, has soared to movie-star status in the eyes of many for the no-holds-barred crackdown on the Brotherhood and its supporters. “Coup” has become a derogatory four-letter word in some anti-Brotherhood circles, but the blunt military clampdown receives unwavering support from many of Morsi’s opponents.
All the while, Mubarak is at home, on house arrest, his life sentence for failing to protect protesters during the 2011 uprising scrapped; a retrial is underway behind closed doors.
“You must fight fire with fire,” said Cairo resident Dina Mahmoud, 40, who wishes to see El-Sisi elected president. “In one year, [the Muslim Brotherhood] took Egypt back 1,000 years. Imagine what they would do in five, 10, 20 years? El Sisi saved Egypt!”
Since July 3, the military has ruled with an iron grip, working to virtually erase the footprint that Islamist groups rapidly imprinted onto the nation. A report released by New York-based Human Rights Watch on Saturday calls upon the military to set up a fact-finding committee into the use of deadly force on protesters. More than 1,300 people were killed in demonstrations since Morsi’s removal, according to HRW.
The clampdown on media has also raised red flags among rights activists in the country. In the immediate aftermath of the July 3 coup, the military shut down a number of Islamist-run television networks, saying they insulted the armed forces and were inciting “foreign countries against Egypt.” However, last week privately-owned network CBC pulled the plug on the immensely popular show ElBernameg, Egypt’s version of The Daily Show, after its host Bassem Youssef took aim at General El-Sisi and the lesser-known, less charismatic Interim President Adly Mansour. (Youssef had been summoned to court for insulting Morsi during his tenure, but the show was not canceled at that time.)
All the while, a rapid deterioration in security is raising concerns following a string of deadly attacks in the Sinai and the greater Suez Canal region. The military has launched a subsequent anti-terrorism campaign, seeking to justify the use of force as a necessary means for securing the country. But analysts warn that this response could backfire and drive many to pursue extremer tactics.
“The evidence is pretty clear that repression leads to radicalization,” said Steven Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. “This is not a coincidence. With every unhappy experience with the state, there are less and less members of the Brotherhood who are willing to play by the rules of the political game that the military and military-backed government have established.”