Yesterday, for the first time in four months, Egypt's deposed Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, appeared in public. Since his ouster on July 3 the interim government and armed forces have gone to great lengths to keep his whereabouts a secret. The inevitable speculation made for some interesting gossip: Was he rotting in jail in Alexandria? Was he effectively being held captive in the Republican Guard HQ? Was he, for whatever reason, in Qatar? Could he even be dead?
If he is found guilty of the charges against him, death will become a very real possibility for Morsi. He, along with 14 other high-ranking members of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, are accused of a multitude of crimes, including incitement to murder.
On December 5 last year, a march staged by supporters of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood intentionally made its way to an anti-Morsi sit-in outside the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace. Predictably violence ensued, with 11 people dead—three of them non-Brotherhood. Reports subsequently emerged that Brotherhood members had set up makeshift torture rooms and graphic stories leaked out over the proceeding weeks. The question now is how much Morsi, or Brotherhood leaders, had to do with any of it.
Less than 24 hours before his trial was due to start, the location of the courtroom was finally released: New Cairo’s Police Academy—exactly where Egypt's pre-Morsi leader Hosni Mubarak had his trials and verdict announcement about two years ago. The room that Morsi stood in yesterday is exactly where Mubarak had been wheeled out to stand, the courtroom having been specifically built for his trial.
As journalists and lawyers poured into the room, it was clear that this was an ad hoc job. What seemed to have once been a lecture hall had been split in two, one half a jumble of mesh, bars and cage, the other half tiers of benches.
Down in the corner were six leading members of the Brotherhood, their white prison uniforms just visible through the mesh. Once everyone was in place they chanted in unison, “We are not a military state!” and, “Down! Down! With military rule!” The response from the lawyers’ section of the hall was immediate. Some held up the four-finger salute that has become a symbol of Muslim Brotherhood solidarity and joined in with the detainees’ chanting, while other cried out, “Execution!” Simply put, it was the polarization of Egyptian society in microcosm.
After the dust had settled, the judges came out and ordered silence. Presiding judge, Ahmed Sabry, had just about taken his seat when a loud clapping sound could be heard coming from the cells. Morsi appeared to the applause of his arrested colleagues. Having apparently refused to wear the white prison uniform, he instead opted for a dark blue suit, with a white shirt and open collar. He waved, setting off another few minutes of yelling and chanting. A journalist down from me suddenly lost it and started yelling, “Execution! Execution!”
Morsi’s strategy for the trial was clear well before it had even started. He has always clung to the absolute authority of "legitimacy" because he’s certain he has it—this is widely disputed. Astatement released through IkhwanWeb—the Brotherhood's official English-language website—a week before the trial stated, “The legitimate president and legal team totally reject the trial.”
Morsi remained as defiant in person, not waiting to deliver a statement to the massed judges, lawyers, and journalists. Talking over the judge, he proclaimed, “I am the legitimate president of the republic! This is an illegal coup and I do not recognize the court! I have respect for the Egyptian judiciary, but they are being used as a cover for the coup!” Later, he extended some advice to the security services, warning, “Never let anyone turn you against the Egyptian people!”
The trial was chaotic, with the judges, defendants, and lawyers all yelling at one another, forcing two temporary breaks in proceedings. It seemed to be Morsi and Mohamed el Beltagy (an important Brotherhood member) who were most vocal in decrying the politicized nature of the process they were caught up in and the charges brought against them. Beltagy often interrupted the judge with cries of “Illegal!” and “Illegitimate!” whenever certain topics were touched upon.
After the court was stopped the first time, a fight broke out among the lawyers, which sounds odd but wasn't all that surprising given they were openly calling for polar-opposite goals. Morsi stuck to the plan and refused any negotiations or interactions with the court. When offered the chance to have his old legal companion Mohamed Selim Al-Awa as his lawyer for the trial, he simply restated, “I am the legitimate president of the republic!”
The lawyers didn't seem in too much of a rush to get on with things either, begging the judge for more time to read through the 7,000-page case for proper preparation. Eventually, after a second break was forced due to raucous behavior, Judge Sabry adjourned the trial until January 8, 2014.
Outside the huge compound, a congregation of about 300 Morsi supporters waited chanting. Making my way back through the police and onto their side I was bombarded with questions. When they found out that Morsi had not complied whatsoever and had another trial date set for January, there was a mixture of pride and anger among those I spoke with.
“The whole court is corrupt," declared Mahmoud Suleiman, a Morsi supporter outside the Police Academy. "Why would he agree to do anything with them? He is my president and the legitimate president of Egypt." As pro-Brotherhood lawyers made their way out they were greeted with cheer, each one surrounded for interviews and occasionally lifted onto the shoulders of the crowd. The odd ant-Morsi lawyer who accidentally came through this exit needed to make a quick getaway or face a beating.
Elsewhere in Egypt, numerous small protests took place and minor trouble flared whenever pro-Morsi met anti-Morsi or riot police. It was the final day of a raft of protests planned by the Anti-Coup Alliance, but in light of Morsi’s defiant actions, they released a new statement that called for a new "million man" march today, naming it, the World Salutes the President’s Resolve.