A week before the trial of Mohamed Morsi began members of the Muslim Brotherhood issued repeated warnings that, beginning Friday, they would swamp the streets with protesters. “Friday will be the beginning of the end of the military coup,” claimed one piece of spray-painted graffiti.
The slogan turned out to be wide off the mark. Morsi was easily brought by security forces from his undisclosed place of detention to the court. Only 30 Brotherhood diehards were arrested for inciting violence in downtown Cairo. Morsi was then flown to his new place of detention, Borg Al-Arab prison west of Alexandria, without any of his supporters being able to cause trouble.
Political and media analysts agreed that while Brotherhood plans for mass unrest were a damp squib the government scored a success.
Sameh Seif Al-Yazal, director of Al-Gomhuriya Centre for Strategic Studies, argued that “the trial of Morsi will be remembered as the day on which Egypt’s security forces were able to recover the state’s sovereignty, clip the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood — or the country’s most organised group as the Western media likes to call it — and send a message to everyone that it will be relentless in stemming the tide of Islamist street violence.”
According to Seif Al-Yazal, “this is not reversion to a police state but evidence of the state’s determination to impose order and move the country forward towards implementing the post-30 June political roadmap.”
Morsi, like his Brotherhood co-defendants, entered the courtroom on the first day of his trial repeatedly shouting the word “legitimacy”.
Khaled Abu Bakr, a lawyer representing the families of those killed by Brotherhood armed militias in front of Al-Ittihadiya presidential palace on 5 December 2012, said he was shocked by Morsi’s entrance.
“This is not a man who was a president of the Middle East’s most ancient nation but someone who has lost contact with reality. When I saw him rush into the courtroom repeating the word legitimacy I thought here is a man suffering some kind of mental absenteeism.”
“It was as if Morsi was determined to reinforce the public belief that he acts always under orders from his group and not as a responsible statesman who has to face reality. His behaviour served only to underline that while he was in power he acted not as the president of all Egyptians as he once promised but as the Muslim Brotherhood’s representative in the presidential palace.”
“As well turning their backs to the judges and chanting about legitimacy,” says Abu Bakr, “Morsi and his co-defendants kept shouting words in English as if they were being interviewed by the foreign correspondents present. It reminded me of when Ayman Al-Zawahri, now Al-Qaeda chief, was put on trial in 1982 after being accused of participating in the assassination of [Anwar] Al-Sadat. He also turned his back to the court and shouted in English to attract the attention of foreign correspondents.”
Morsi and 14 Brotherhood officials are being tried for inciting the murder of protesters on 5 and 6 December 2012. The prosecution says Morsi issued direct orders to Mohamed Zaki, chief of the presidential guard, to use force in dispersing thousands young demonstrators who had gathered in front of Al-Ittihadiya presidential palace in East Cairo’s Heliopolis district to protest a constitutional declaration issued by Morsi which placed his decrees beyond judicial review.
The prosecution claims telephone transcripts show Morsi not only ordering Zaki on the evening of 5 December to “disperse protesters by force” but record the then president threatening to take action himself should Zaki refuse.
The prosecution cites Republican Guard officials urging Morsi to enter into dialogue with the protesters rather than resort to violence. It is claimed former interior minister Ahmed Gamaleddin joined forces with the Republican Guard and refused to attack the demonstrators.
The prosecution alleges that in the face of this refusal the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, headed by Mohamed Badie and his deputy, billionaire business tycoon Khairat Al-Shater, mobilised the group’s armed militias to disperse the protesters. According to the prosecution, these militias moved quickly to attack the protesters, torching tents set up by Morsi’s opponents and abducting 54 of them. “Egged on by Morsi’s chief of presidential staff Rifaa Al-Tahtawi and his deputies Asaad Al-Sheikha and Abdel-Atti, the militias tortured the abductees in an attempt to force them to confess they had been paid to protest against Morsi,” says the prosecution.
A report prepared by the National Council for Human Rights quoted several citizens abducted and then tortured by the Muslim Brotherhood. Yehia Zakaria, a former diplomat, was among those detained by Morsi supporters. Along with dozens of others he says he was left to bleed outside the palace gates while their captors were able to enter and exit the palace “as if it was their home”.
“They stripped us of everything, watches, money and wallets. When they saw diplomat on my ID they kept repeating, ‘You’re with Amr Moussa, you receive foreign funding, you’re a spy.’ To them we were all paid spies, thugs or infidels.”
Zakaria, who lived in exile for years under the Mubarak regime and was only able to return to Egypt after the 2011 revolution, says that by the end of 5 December there were more than 50 people, including a 14-year-old boy, lying beside him by the palace gates. Bound and beaten, they were refused medical care.
“When two young doctors finally arrived I asked one if he could check the cut to my head. He refused, saying he had instructions not to treat us. We were only provided with bandages to minimise the bleeding.”
“A second, female doctor was worse,” says Zakaria. “She kicked us each time she passed, saying we weren’t human beings. ‘You’re not like us,’ she kept saying.”
In a televised speech on 6 December Morsi claimed that “security forces arrested 80 protesters who were involved in violent acts and the prosecution investigation has revealed they had links with political forces and obtained money to commit violent acts.”
Morsi went on to ask, “Who paid money for these people and provided them with arms?”
It was a narrative that began to unravel when prosecutor Mustafa Khater expressed outrage at the torture inflicted by the Muslim Brotherhood’s armed militias. “The abductees were tortured in an attempt to coerce them into saying they had accepted money to protest,” claims the prosecution. “They were abducted by armed militias and Morsi’s televised claims that they took money to commit violence are entirely unfounded.”
To the dismay of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood the tortured prisoners were released.
Khater subsequently said he had come under heavy pressure from the Morsi appointed prosecutor-general Talaat Abdallah to send the 54 abductees to trial, a revelation that was highly embarrassing for Morsi.
Lawyer Mohamed Bahaa Abu Shoka noted that “while Mubarak is being tried for not doing enough to prevent the killing of protesters during the heyday of the 25 January Revolution, Morsi is accused of issuing direct orders to officers of the Republican Guard and other security forces to open fire on those who opposed his presidential decree. The televised speech lends credence to the accusations levelled against him and if convicted, he could face the death penalty.”
Ahmed Youssef, the Appeals Court judge presiding over the trial, was forced to temporarily suspend the hearing more than once as the defendants chanted from the dock.
Morsi insisted he remained Egypt’s legitimate president and called on the judiciary “not to provide cover for the criminal coup d’etat”.
According to Abu Bakr, one of Morsi’s defence team, lawyer Selim Al-Awwa, argued before the court that his client remains the legitimate president and as such the 2012 constitution prevents him being tried. Abu Bakr says he was surprised Al-Awwa was given the floor since Morsi had refused to be officially represented in court.
Abu Shoka stresses that Youssef has several means at his disposal to impose order on the courtroom.
“If Morsi insists on chanting slogans about legitimacy and he and his co-defendants continue doing their best to obstruct the trial it will be to their detriment. Youssef has the power to prevent Morsi from attending sessions if he causes trouble. It is up to the presiding judge to strike a balance between the requirements of a fair trial and ensuring sessions pass without interruptions.”
Seven of the defendants are being tried in absentia, including Islamist activist Ahmed Al-Moghir and the firebrand preacher Wagdi Ghoneim.
Al-Awwa, a former presidential candidate, complained that many of Morsi’s lawyers were not being allowed into court.
Outside the courtroom pro-Morsi protesters were reluctant to speak to the local media. They would speak only to Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera channel and foreign correspondents.
Many members of the public have questioned why the trial was not broadcast live as happened with the opening sessions of Mubarak’s court appearance.
“The circumstances,” says Abu Shoka, “are very different.”
“Mubarak did not deny the January Revolution happened and he submitted to trial. Morsi, on the other hand, refuses to acknowledge the 30 June Revolution and insists that he is the legitimate president. It is easy to imagine Morsi and his co-defendants directing insults and accusations against the judges trying them and against senior government officials, including Minister of Defence Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. If these are aired live the trial will turn into a political vendetta rather than an investigation of the truth. It is better by far not to broadcast the proceedings.”
Abu Shoka predicts Morsi will soon be facing a second trial, this time on spying charges and subverting national security. “In the meantime,” he says, “it is important Egypt moves forward in terms of endorsing a new constitution. The country needs to recover its stability.”
Abu Shoka does not rule out the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood might resort to further violence “of the kind we experienced in the early 1990s”.
“This should not,” he says, “deter us from moving forward.”