Deposed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi goes on trial Monday in a proceeding that threatens to cement the military's pre-eminent position in the country. From beginning to end, it has been the army and its leader, General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, that have been calling the shots in this case.
The hearing comes after a brutal four-month crackdown on Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement during which more than 1,000 supporters have been killed and hundreds jailed. Mr. Morsi has been held in a secret location since he was taken into custody on July 3 following mass protests against his rule, just one year old.
The ousted president's supporters have labelled the proceedings "absurd" and the charges of inciting murder as "fabricated." They argue Mr. Morsi's trial is political in nature and a fair hearing is not possible.
"What concerns me about this trial is that the justice system has been extremely selective and there has been almost near impunity for security services for the killing of hundreds of protesters," said Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch. "In that kind of environment of politicized prosecutions, the likelihood for real justice is compromised."
Apparently addressing some of those concerns, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made an unannounced stop in Cairo Sunday to emphasize the importance of Egypt's move to democracy, including a fair and transparent trial for all Egyptians.
"We support you in this tremendous transformation that you are undergoing," Mr. Kerry said. "We know it's difficult. We want to help."
The Muslim Brotherhood has called for major protests Monday across the country and Egypt's security forces are on high alert. Focal points such as Cairo's Tahrir Square, where protests and clashes have been common, have been locked down since Sunday evening and the country's overnight curfew has been strictly enforced.
Some 20,000 police officers and soldiers will protect the trial and more than 2,000 ambulances have been positioned across the country, the government announced.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Hany Abdel Latif said if the protests are peaceful, the authorities will ensure security for the gatherings. But if they stray from peacefulness, tear gas will be employed; and if the protesters are armed, live ammunition will be used by the police, he said.
The accusation of incitement to murder stems from violent clashes that broke out Dec. 4 between defenders of Mr. Morsi and protesters who objected to a constitutional decree Mr. Morsi had issued putting his decisions beyond the reach of the courts. It is alleged that Mr. Morsi gave direct orders to his supporters to use violence to disperse the protesters who had set up a camp outside his presidential palace.
The clashes lasted through the day and into the following morning. By the time it was over, eight people lay dead, four of whom were members of Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.
It is a relatively small number, considering the more than 1,000 people killed in the crackdown on the Brotherhood but, if convicted, Mr. Morsi and his co-defendants – 14 senior Brotherhood officials – could face the death penalty or life imprisonment.
Mr. Morsi has not been heard in public since July 3, and he may not yet have been able to consult legal counsel, but the Muslim Brotherhood has declared that the former president rejects the legitimacy of the court to try to him. This will likely be his primary defence. It was a defence used by ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and by former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic at the International Criminal Tribunal. It failed in both cases.
Alternatively, Mr. Morsi may plead he gave no specific orders to kill. However, video recordings of the incident have shown captured anti-Morsi protesters being tortured at the gates of his palace by known members of the
Brotherhood. As well, during the clashes, Brotherhood leaders summoned a popular mobilization to defend Mr. Morsi against what they said was an attack on the elected head of state.
Relations between the United States and Egypt have been strained since Mr. Morsi's overthrow July 3. Washington has called for his release and an end to the violent crackdown against his supporters. To signal its concern, the Obama administration suspended delivery of certain weapons scheduled to be shipped to Egypt's military.
Mr. Kerry tried hard on his six-hour visit to put a good face on the tensions between the countries. He offered encouragement and loyalty, mixed with an insistence that Egypt follow the road map to full democracy.
However, many people here express resentment that the Obama administration appears to have sided with the Brotherhood in what amounts to a struggle for the identity of the country.
The real concern
Putting the last nail in Mr. Morsi's political coffin and burying the Muslim Brotherhood would leave Egypt's military without any real political challenger.
It was the Brotherhood that unexpectedly interrupted the old military-backed authoritarian regime that ruled Egypt since 1952, notes Adel Soleiman, a former military general and head of the Cairo-based Strategic Dialogue Forum for Defence Studies. The issue to be determined now, he says, is whether the old regime will pick up where it left off or whether a democratic, civilian state will be established.
The military leadership, Mr. Soleiman says, is using the drafting of a new constitution during this interim period to consolidate the military's hold on power including its immunity from any prosecution.
"The military leaders are telling the people that the [real, military] regime will not fall," Mr. Soleiman told Al Jazeera television on the weekend. Presidents may come and go, "but the regime will not change."