Egypt: Tensions rise as trial of ousted President Mohamed Morsi looms

An Egyptian army tank is stationed outside the high court during the trial of Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Cairo on Tuesday. Judges overseeing the trial withdrew from the case.
(Khaled Elfiqi / European Pressphoto Agency)

CAIRO -- From staid legal chambers to the kung fu arena, political tensions are heightening as Egyptian authorities prepare to put the country’s first democratically elected president, Islamist Mohamed Morsi, on trial.

With court proceedings scheduled to begin Monday, backers of Morsi have declared that he does not recognize the legitimacy of the military-backed government that displaced him nearly four months ago and that he still considers himself the country’s rightful president.

Supporters said this week that Morsi would not engage a lawyer to represent him, because to do so would imply that he accepted the legitimacy of the court and its proceedings. And they are warning that the landmark trial of Morsi and his top lieutenants could do lasting damage to the country’s judicial system.

“Hostility against the honorable judges of Egypt…[is] threatening the independence and impartiality of the judiciary,” said a statement this week from the Anti-Coup Alliance, a consortium of groups against Morsi’s ouster.


Tuesday brought a strong signal of disquiet from within the legal community, when a panel of judges presiding over the separate trial of the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader and other senior figures recused themselves. They cited “unease” over the nature of the proceedings, which had begun in August and will now have to be restarted.

One reason for the judges’ qualms was reported to be official pressure to move the proceedings to Cairo’s notorious Tora prison, where Morsi’s trial is expected to be convened. Human rights groups have documented serious abuses at the prison, and with some 2,000 Brotherhood supporters behind bars, many are being held there.

The military has refused to say where Morsi himself is being held, and since being toppled, he has had almost no communication with the outside world.

Egyptians broadly supported the military coup that pushed the Brotherhood from power after a disastrous year marked by inept governance and heavy-handed wielding of power. But the authoritarian nature of the interim government that replaced him has drawn sharp international criticism and chilled domestic political discourse.

Large and deliberately visible deployments of police and soldiers in urban centers have managed to keep a lid on street violence even as the Brotherhood seeks to keep its protest movement alive. Many observers believe the harsh crackdown on the group -- which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of its supporters in mid-August -- has radicalized a substantial share of its followers.

Egypt’s army is now battling an increasingly sophisticated Islamist militancy in the strategic Sinai peninsula, and attacks on security targets across the country have ticked steadily upward in recent months. At the same time, minority groups such as Egypt’s Coptic Christians and Shiite Muslims have been the victims of rising sectarian violence.

The political divisiveness has made deep inroads into popular culture as well, even entering the somewhat esoteric realm of kung fu fighting.

Egypt’s kung fu association said this week it had barred an athlete from representing Egypt at the upcoming world championship in Malaysia, state newspapers reported. The martial arts fighter in question, Mohamed Youssef, had angered authorities with a public display at an international awards ceremony of the yellow four-fingered hand that has become the symbol of the bloody August crackdown -- a reference to the name of the mosque complex where the violence was concentrated.


And Egypt’s best-known political satirist, Bassem Youssef, spoke out this week after an announcement by prosecutors that he could soon face charges of defamation and slander. Youssef’s show, often compared to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” came back on the air last week after a four-month hiatus, and in his debut appearance, he poked fun at slavish displays of public adoration for army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, who is effectively running the country.

Sisi’s backers want him to run for president, and most analysts believe he’d win.

In his weekly newspaper column, published Monday, Youssef described supporters of both the army and the Brotherhood as intolerant. Many of his former fans -- onetime revolutionaries who are now supporters of the new government -- have turned against him.

“I can understand the fundamentalism of the religious current and its leaning toward the extreme right,” Youssef wrote. “What I cannot understand is the current that calls itself liberal and free.”



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Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.