"I am Dr Mohammed Morsi and I am the president of the republic," boomed the former president when asked to identify himself at his preliminary hearing two weeks ago. "This coup is a crime and treasonous, and the court is held responsible for it," he added.
In an almost characteristically Egyptian manner, the trial then descended into farce. Local journalists chanted for his execution, whilst his defence lawyers and fellow political prisoners were emboldened by Morsi lifting his hand in the now ubiquitous four-fingered Rabaa (Arabic for ‘fourth’) sign – a gesture which symbolises solidarity with the hundreds killed when security forces cleared the pro-Morsi sit-in at the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square mosque in August and which has become a rallying symbol for Egyptian protestors.
Morsi, the second Egyptian president to be on trial in recent times, finds himself accused on two main fronts. The first incident relates to events which took place in December 2012 while he was still in office, when he allegedly incited his supporters to murder protesters who were camped outside the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace.
In violent clearing of the sit-in – which became known as the Ittihadiya clashes – 11 people were killed, 8 belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, and hundreds more were injured. Morsi – along with 14 others, though interestingly not his interior minister at the time – is being tried for the deaths of the 3 non-Islamists.
Morsi is facing a criminal trial, and it would be in proving ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ his intention to commit these crimes that the courts would face their greatest difficulty – were the judiciary politically independent, that is. If their recent history is anything to go by, we know most certainly it is not. And the court’s task will be made all the more difficult by a recent interview given by Egypt’s former justice minister, Ahmed Mekki.
Mekki hit the headlines in April 2013 for his public and embittered resignation from the Morsi administration, driven by what he perceived to be Morsi’s intent to infringe on the independence of the judiciary by ploughing ahead with a controversial judicial reform bill. In his time, he was also known for openly criticising the Muslim Brotherhood for their incessant disparagement of him.
Mekki is thus no Brotherhood stooge by any means, which adds credibility of his account of what happened at the Ittihadiya Palace on that fateful day. Mekki says that Morsi repeatedly used the phrase “anything but blood” and has said that he is “certain” the former president is innocent. His first-hand account will probably mean little to the judges, but it gives credence to the popular perception that Morsi’s trial is a deeply politicised one.
Morsi has also been accused of conspiring with Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which rules the Gaza Strip, with regards to his now infamous prison break during the 18-day revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 as well as of aiding them in planning attacks on police stations across the country (spoiler alert: the evidence is feeble).
Many activists see these accusations as marking a return to a Mubarak-era chauvinism which demonised Palestinians and blamed them for all sorts of wild conspiracies in order to deflect public attention from the pressing political issues of the day.
Putting aside the fact that Morsi is being accused of the crime breaking out of jail where he was being held as a political prisoner – all during a popular revolution which topple the very regime that had imprisoned him – many pro-Palestinian activists have pointed out how the new regime’s claims seem to be criminalising communication with Palestine’s foremost resistance group and marking a return to the old regime’s favourable treatment of Israel.
The fact that there is little doubt this is a sham trial also means there is little doubt Morsi will be found guilty. It seems unlikely however that Morsi will be sentenced to death. His brief appearance last week was enough to galvanise his supporters, and executing him would only make him a martyr in their eyes. More likely is that Morsi and his fellow political detainees will face life sentences in order to decapitate the Muslim Brotherhood’s organisational structure and deprive its supporters of public figures to rally around.
Morsi’s trial is also unsurprisingly being accompanied by a vicious media smear campaign against not only the Brotherhood but against political Islam as a whole. The day after the military toppled Egypt’s first freely-elected president, it moved quickly to shut down all opposition television stations and has even subsequently pressured a liberal satirical TV-show off the air for making a mild jab at the coup’s leader General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
The remaining media’s reaction to the trial was thus predictably negative as they attempted to paint the former president as a man gripped by hysteria and accused him of being mentally unstable because he was smiling in court. If that sounds absurd, one should bear in mind that these accusations in fact rank relatively low on the scale of bizarre Islamist demonisation currently taking place in Egypt; for instance, those claims are certainly less obscene than the hilarious accusation that the Muslim Brotherhood was using puppies as petrol bombs (yes, seriously).
Morsi’s trial can be seen as a microcosm of Egypt’s current political landscape: polarised, venomous and with no clear end in sight. The former president’s latest communiqué to the Egyptian people, read out by his legal defence team, only further entrenched these divisions.
One might be forgiven for thinking that this is simply a struggle between bitter, deposed Islamists and a powerful military seeking to extend its privileged position in Egyptian society – that is certainly the image that the muzzled local media would like (and are only allowed) to express – but the actual divisions run much deeper. Despite the vehement protestations of the liberal twittersphere, those protesting are not only Islamists, and acceptance of this fact is what will allow us to analyse the true significance of Morsi’s trial.
In the eyes of his supporters, they do not see a politician in the docks. They see their votes. And until analysts and commentators accept the reality that the protestors – who five months later continue to show their opposition to Morsi’s overthrow even after the bloody Rabaa Al-Adawiya massacre – are not fighting for political Islam per se but rather the right to choose between political Islam and secularism, then the true significance of Morsi’s trial will continue to be lost upon them.
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