Cairo, Egypt – A little more than four months ago, Mohamed Morsi was president of the Arab Republic of Egypt.
The nation’s ministers, after being chauffeur-driven through the gates of the Presidential Palace, would conduct meetings with their head of state in one of his lofty briefing rooms. The man himself commanded the attention of leaders around the globe.
But after being toppled by his own generals on July 3 and whisked into solitary confinement, Morsi today faces a trial that could eventually lead to his execution. Thousands of his supporters have been rounded up by the security services, while the Muslim Brotherhood is being subjected to one of the most relentless campaigns of oppression in its long history.
Democracy is on trial and the people's voice is on trial. We will protest to put pressure on the military and the government to abide by the law.
The military, say observers, may be hoping to drive a final nail into the Brotherhood’s coffin by using today’s trial to finish off its most high-profile political martyr. “It is the government’s dream to end the organisation,” said Bahey el-Din Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute For Human Rights.
But Morsi’s supporters say the former president – who once stood in Tahrir Square surrounded by sunglass-wearing security men, and bared his chest to prove he was not afraid of an assassin’s bullet – is the victim of a show trial.
Despite being drastically weakened by a campaign of arrests and detentions, they have vowed to oppose courtroom proceedings by continuing their weekly street protests. Like a Nile River mosquito buzzing through the officers’ mess, the Brotherhood has become a nuisance to the military that refuses to go away – however hard the authorities try to swat it.
“The revolution will continue until we have realised our democracy,” said Muslim Brotherhood-supporting journalist Hassan al-Kabary, speaking to Al Jazeera.
Morsi and other top Brotherhood officials are charged with inciting violence that led to the killing of protesters outside the Presidential Palace last December. The former president hasn’t been seen in public since being detained.
Right up until the eve of the trial, the authorities had still not confirmed exactly where proceedings would be taking place – a state of affairs that may have resulted from the considerable security operation surrounding the case. It later emerged it would happen inside a police academy in the capital Cairo.
Nor has anyone announced whether the proceedings would be televised, as they were during former president Hosni Mubarak’s trial.
The former president is being tried alongside 14 other Brotherhood members, including high-profile leaders Mohammed el-Beltagi and Essam el-Erian.
Some 20,000 police officers were drafted to provide security, according to officials. A statement was also released by the authorities saying any attempt by protesters to approach the courtroom would be met with a severe response.
Given the determination of Morsi’s supporters to mount of show of street power, there is a serious danger of clashes erupting.
“Democracy is on trial and the people’s voice is on trial,” said Omar Gaber, a Brotherhood member from Zagazig, Morsi’s hometown. “We will protest to put pressure on the military and the government to abide by the law.”
But any overwhelming displays of dissent are likely to be met in brutal fashion if they happen to get too close to the courthouse. Human Rights Watch has released a report on a demonstration last month in which security forces killed 57 mainly Islamist protesters
The rights group condemned Egypt’s authorities for failing to investigate the attacks, which occurred when Morsi supporters mounted an anti-government rally during the annual October 6 commemoration of Egypt’s last war with Israel.
It seems likely security forces will respond as they did last month if pro-Morsi rallies get out of hand. But of perhaps equal concern to the former president’s allies is whether the deposed leader can hope to get a fair trial.
Egypt’s current government – led by an interim president propped up on by the military – now faces a problem: How to mount a credible case when your political authority rests upon a guilty verdict?
Under these heavily politicised circumstances, where an acquittal for Morsi would invalidate the actions of the army, some analysts have suggested the former president cannot hope to receive a fair trial.
Emad el-Din Shahin, a Cairo-based politics professor, questioned the circumstances surrounding Morsi’s detention and also the procedural issues related to the case. He noted that according to Egypt’s 2012 constitution – which was widely rejected by the country’s non-Islamist political forces – the former president has not been removed from power legally.
He also said, given the charges against Morsi relating to the killing of protesters last year, that the Minister of the Interior at the time should also be in the dock. The fact that he is not, said Shahin, suggests that justice is being “selective.”
The Brotherhood is clearly not going to be an electoral political actor for the present, and the trial will not change that. The 'roadmap' is going ahead regardless of what happens with Morsi.
“This is the environment he is going to be tried in,” said Shahin.
Mohamed al-Damaty is a spokesman for a team of lawyers attempting to observe the proceedings on Morsi’s behalf. He said of the 25 attorneys volunteering, only five received permits to enter the court.
Some 7,000 pages of court files requested weeks earlier were only received Sunday night, Damaty said.
Shahin said many of the people who had supported the military’s intervention on July 3 were now beginning to regret it. Even if that is the case, there are nevertheless huge numbers of people who do not regret it.
General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt‘s army chief, is massively popular on the streets, in no small part because of his role in the crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood over the past three months.
The fate of Bassem Youssef – the Egyptian satirist whose show was cancelled on Friday by his bosses after only its first episode – shows why many of the country’s most influential figures are also reluctant to question the military’s ascendency.
Some argue that, in a broader sense for the country, the trial of Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders will not influence the current political climate. According to US-based Egypt analyst Nathan Brown, the trials won’t upend the political “roadmap” that was laid out for the masses following his ouster.
Even if Egyptian justice was guilty of being selective, the system had checks in place that meant individual cases could be processed effectively, said Brown.
“The Brotherhood is clearly not going to be an electoral political actor for the present, and the trial will not change that,” he said. “The ‘roadmap’ is going ahead regardless of what happens with Morsi.”