In the battle for Egyptian hearts and minds over the ouster and trial of deposed president Mohammed Morsi, it was Egypt’s military that got the better of its challenger, the Muslim Brotherhood, on Monday.
Mr. Morsi’s long-awaited trial on a charge of inciting murder got off to a chaotic start, with outbursts and interruptions. It was the dramatic first public appearance of Mr. Morsi, who has been kept detained in secret since the July 3 military coup that removed him from power.
“It was no contest,” said Hisham Kassem, a long-time civil-rights advocate and founding publisher of the Al Masry al-Youm newspaper. “Morsi’s antics in the courtroom made him look like a student prankster,” he said, “not a former president.”
Mr. Kassem was referring to Mr. Morsi loudly insisting in court that he was the country’s legally elected president and that the court had no right to try him. Mr. Morsi refused to wear the white garb given prisoners and, alongside his 14 co-defendants in the prisoners’ cage, made a show of looking distinctive in his blazer and open-neck shirt.
“The coup is treason,” Mr. Morsi is reported to have declared. “I’m the president of the republic and I’m here against my will.” He refused to enter a plea on the charge he faces in a case stemming from the killing of protesters by some of Mr. Morsi’s followers in December last year.
The chief judge of the tribunal hearing the case suspended the proceedings twice over Mr. Morsi’s outbursts and the defendants’ loud chanting of “Down, down with the military.” Finally, he adjourned the case until Jan. 8.
In advance of the day’s events, the army secured and locked down many of the major squares and streets in Cairo that have been the sites of major demonstrations. They flooded the areas with armoured personnel carriers and tanks, barbed wire barriers and lots of troops.
The army emerged as a model of restraint, in sharp contrast to its role in the brutal crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood the past four months. In August alone, more than 1,000 supporters of the Muslim Brothers were killed. On Monday, no one died.
In Cairo and across the country, the Brotherhood’s protests were more limited than expected, despite a widespread call for followers to take to the streets.
The biggest rally, at Egypt’s constitutional court in the Maadi district of south Cairo, was impressive in number – more than 5,000 – and in determination. But the protesters failed to lure the soldiers guarding the courthouse into a fight despite an endless stream of insults and taunts. Some spray-painted obscenities on the marble walls of the edifice in which Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, once served as chief justice. In the end, the protesters came away looking belligerent and the army came away looking good.
“They’ve learned how to behave in the street,” said a public-relations consultant who works for some of Egypt’s biggest firms and spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he did not want to compromise his clients. “Yesterday they were the ones restoring order, calmly.”
“This will play very well across the country,” he said.
The two-month delay until Mr. Morsi’s next court appearance could further cool the ardour of Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
The Brotherhood’s big weapon was its argument, repeated ad nauseam Monday, that Mr. Morsi is the legitimate president of the country elected by the people.
“That argument will play very well with Western audiences, especially in Europe,” said the PR consultant. “They appreciate Morsi standing on principle.”
This is not the case for many Egyptians, however.
“That doesn’t matter as much to the people here,” said Mr. Kassem. “Egyptians desperately want a return to order,” and the army stands a better chance of achieving this for the time being, he has concluded.
Liberals in Egypt are in a bind. They opposed Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule; they opposed Mr. Morsi’s Islamist agenda, and now they’re increasingly worried about the army’s consolidation of power.
Mr. Kassem is one of those liberals. For years, he fought for civil rights in the face of the Mubarak machine. But he’s come to the conclusion that “while Egyptians want democracy, they want law and order more. They’re not quite ready for real democracy.”
That suits the army’s agenda quite nicely. As General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the commander-in-chief of the Egyptian military, was heard recently telling the current editor of Al Masry al-Youm, the army is “the backbone of the state.”
Gen. el-Sissi is the first army head not to have any combat experience, making his mark instead in military intelligence.
The army, he told the newspaper editor, should have immunity from prosecution in the coming transitional period of 15 years or so, in order not to be affected by any excesses it might have carried out during the crackdown on the Brotherhood or anyone else.
This is not to protect Gen. el-Sissi, himself, he wanted the editor to understand. “It is for the institution.”