Egypt’s ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was defiant yesterday as his much-awaited trial began in Cairo. So were his supporters on streets across Egypt.
Morsi was charged with incitement to commit murder and violent acts during protests against him outside Cairo’s Ittihadiya Presidential Palace on December 4 last year. Hundreds were injured and at least 10 died (including four Muslim Brotherhood supporters), and there were also reports of torture, allegedly backed up by video evidence.
After being identified as a “defendant” at the trial, Morsi said: “I am Dr Mohamed Morsi, the president of the Republic. I am Egypt’s legitimate president.” He added: “I refuse to be tried by this court”, calling the judiciary “a cover for the treacherous coup”.
Few had seen Morsi since he was deposed on July 3, but by all accounts he looked positively dapper compared to the other Muslim Brotherhood leaders facing similar charges, who were wearing the traditional and official “white” court attire for prisoners. Morsi’s refusal to swap his blue jacket for the symbolic white caused some delay. Having earlier declined any lawyers, he was also without legal representation.
Once underway, the proceedings descended into chaos. Chanting and disruption to the court by all the defendants eventually forced an adjournment until January 8, leaving more time for lawyers to study the reputed 7000-page dossier compiled by the prosecution.
Morsi’s defiance and that of his supporters have been relentless since mass demonstrations on June 30 last year led to a military takeover, orchestrated by armed forces commander and Defence Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The millions who took to the streets wanted Morsi gone, and Sisi was happy to comply by quickly endorsing a “road map” for democracy and appointing an interim president and cabinet to show the way.
It created a bitterly divided nation of anti-coup Morsi supporters versus a much bigger number of Sisi supporters, many of whom want him to run for president. The international community also had difficulty accepting the outcome, unable to understand how a democratically elected president could be tossed out so easily.
Morsi might have been fairly elected, but there was no democracy — there was no parliament and no formal opposition, and the majority of Morsi’s decisions were seen as designed to increase the power of the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States suffered the worst criticism, as Egyptians were encouraged by a pro-military media to believe that the Obama administration had actively supported Morsi and the Brotherhood.
A flying visit to Egypt by US Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday may have gone some way to dispelling this attitude. Kerry met with the country’s leaders, including Sisi, interim President Adly Mansour and Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy. “The road map is being carried out to the best of our perception,” Kerry said, referring to the forthcoming constitutional referendum and next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections. The imminent trial was apparently not mentioned.
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Sunday also brought a statement from Amnesty International, saying the trial was a “test” for the Egyptian authorities in granting Morsi the right to challenge the evidence against him in court.
More than 20,000 police and army officers were deployed for yesterday’s trial, 5000 around Cairo’s Police Academy venue and the rest at other sites where Brotherhood supporters were likely to gather. Some schools and universities also closed for the day due to expectations of violence.
As proceedings began in Egypt’s capital, Morsi fans gathered in sympathy outside the courthouse on Alexandria’s waterfront Corniche, many waving the now iconic black-on-yellow four-finger “Rabaa” sign of the Muslim Brotherhood. The sign grew out of the bloody and brutal eviction of Morsi supporters by Egyptian army and police forces from the Rabaa-al-Adawiya Mosque and Nahda Square sit-ins on August 14 (Raaba means “fourth” in Arabic).
More than 600 people were shot or burned to death that day as fires were lit and security forces used live ammunition. Many more have died since, including on October 6 when almost 60 were killed as millions of Egyptians celebrated the 40th anniversary celebrations of the 1973 war with Israel.
Anti-Morsi forces quickly challenged the Alexandria courthouse protesters, and scuffles spread out along the Corniche. One Brotherhood supporter was injured but was finally helped to safety as security forces showed up and scattered the crowds. When all was calm anti-Morsi protesters marched brazenly along the Cornice with huge posters of Sisi, including spares for sale stacked high in a wheelbarrow. Minutes later they were followed by the now-familiar convey of police and army vehicles that roll endlessly up and down the Corniche.
After the trial was adjourned yesterday, Morsi was apparently moved to a prison at Borg Al Arab, about an hour’s drive from Alexandria and also the site of the city’s new international airport. Alexandrians will not be happy hosting Morsi, as the majority, like their fellow citizens in Cairo, are tired of turmoil and just want it to end.