Shoe-throwing, tirades, and the general chaos at Mohamed Morsy's first day in court.
- By Bel TrewBel Trew is broadcast and print journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter at @beltrew.
CAIRO — The moment Egypt’s deposed Islamist president first opened his lips from a courtroom cage today, his defiant proclamation that he was still the country’s "legitimate" leader was drowned out by the chants of lawyers and journalists calling for his blood.
Those attending the session held at Cairo’s Police Academy clambered over the courtroom’s wooden benches to catch a glimpse of Mohamed Morsy, who has not been seen by the public since the military ousted him in July. And while the courtroom session did not bear much resemblance to a normal legal proceeding, it did provide a microcosm of the hatreds that still consume Egyptian politics today.
Morsy, who was charged by the new military-backed government with incitement to kill protesters during clashes outside Cairo’s presidential palace in December 2012, steadfastly refused to recognize the legitimacy of the legal proceedings. "This is a military coup whose leaders must be put on trial in accordance with the constitution," he said. "I am here against my will."
The former president, dressed in a dark suit without a tie, stood in the same spot as his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, had for his ongoing retrial. But unlike Mubarak, Morsy reportedly refused to wear the all-white prison uniform, delaying the session by two hours.
Morsy was flanked by senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, his former campaign manager, and other presidential aides, who were all facing the same charges. Mohamed Beltagy, a senior member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) drowned out the judges as they read the charges with shouts of "void."
The seven defendants present at the hearing continued to interject as the proceedings continued. Morsy rejected the trial as "a cover for the coup," claiming that he was still president of Egypt, while Beltagy repeated 10 legal reasons that the proceedings were a "farce."
The court room kerfuffle escalated into all-out verbal warfare when the gallery of lawyers and journalists — split between opponents and supporters of Morsy — joined in the melee.
"We are not a military state," Morsy’s defense team argued, holding up the four-finger sign used by Morsy supporters to commemorate the Islamist sit-ins that were violently dispersed by security forces in August.
"Execution, God willing," one of the plantiffs’ lawyers responded.
Judge Ahmed Sabry Youssef struggled to maintain control of the proceedings. He was forced to adjourn the session twice, as the legal teams and even reporters got on their feet and hurled insults at each other.
Some Egyptian journalists made little effort to conceal their bias during the session. They joined in anti-Brotherhood chants with the plaintiffs’ lawyers, who held up photos of one of the men killed during the December clashes, journalist Hussein Abu Deif. During the nine-minute recess, one journalist even scrambled on top of the wooden pews and attempted to launch a shoe at Morsy’s defense team, which had accused Egyptian media of being bought by the United States. He was soon wrestled to the ground by security forces.
But the interruptions continued after the session was resumed, and Judge Youssef once again was forced to call for a break. The raucous hearing ended in an anti-climax: The trial was adjourned to Jan. 8, and Morsy and the other defendants were hauled back to prison. State TV reported that Morsy was taken to Borg El-Arab prison in the desert near Alexandria, while the others went back to Torah.
The question of Morsy’s legal representation remained unresolved by the abbreviated hearing, and continues to hang over the legal proceedings. Former presidential candidate and Islamist lawyer Selim El-Awa told the court that he had been appointed by the FJP to represent Morsy, but apparently had yet to receive his orders from the ousted president.
The three-month delay until the next hearing gives Morsy’s defense team some time to plan their next move — and figure out who counsel is. During that time, they will need to pore over the case file, which runs several thousand pages long and was only given to the lawyers at the last minute. The defense team seized on this fact as yet another piece of evidence that the trial was rigged against them.
"This is the first time we have seen Morsy, and we have barely had time to look at the files," said lawyer Fahim Hamdy Rashid, who represented the defendants. "The fact that he was not legally detained, that he was kidnapped, separates this from the Mubarak trial proceedings."
Meanwhile, the legal team representing those assaulted or killed in front of the presidential palace in December said there were legal grounds to try the 14 men accused alongside Morsy.
"There is well documented evidence, including footage," said Ragia Omran, a human rights lawyer representing several of the victims. "The trial appears politicized after what happened on June 30 [protests that culminated in Morsy’s ouster], but it is important to remember we submitted the complaints back in December 2012. These charges have not been cooked up."
Outside the Police Academy, the scene grew even tenser after the trial ended. Hundreds of Morsy’s supporters gathered to chant against the military, and soon turned on several media outlets reporting from the rally. The trucks of the channel CBC, which is viewed as sympathetic to the military-backed government, were moved and some of the journalists were forced to leave the area. Crowds also rallied at Cairo’s Constitutional Court and in the city of Alexandria, where clashes erupted between Morsy’s supporters and opponents.
On the streets of Cairo, the divisions between those moving ahead with a new military-backed political order and those backing the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies appeared as stark as ever. For the angry demonstrators protesting against the trial, Morsy’s final words still echo loudly: "This is not a court," he said. "This is a coup. I am the president of the republic."