Analysis | Morsi Trial |

In Egypt, the Revolution Wore a Judge’s Robe

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The trial of the second Egyptian president to be prosecuted within two years appears to be another test of the Egyptian justice system, which seeks to demonstrate that it is independent and unbiased. Mohammed Morsi’s indictment states he and another 14 activists from the Muslim Brotherhood were “involved in incitement to violence and violent activity” during the conflicts between Morsi’s supporters and opponents near the Al-Ittihadiya presidential palace on December 5, 2012.

But the tragic “events of Al-Ittihadiya,” as the public calls them — in which at least eight people were killed and more than 500 wounded — constituted a political breaking point not only among Morsi’s opponents, who demanded that he retract the presidential decisions that put him above the law, but also among members of the Muslim Brotherhood themselves. Many of its young activists left the group after the events, and some announced the formation of an independent group. Several high-ranking activists left the group, and among the remaining leadership a heated debate broke out between those who supported and even started the demonstrations, and those who opposed them.

According to reports at the time, Morsi was the one who opposed holding the demonstrations near the presidential palace. But the movement’s leader, Mohammed Badie, and his close deputies including Essam el-Erian and Khairat al-Shater, put him under enormous pressure. They, too, have been arrested and will be put on trial. In any case, the events laid the groundwork for Morsi’s overthrow eight months later and the army’s takeover.

But even Morsi’s opponents, who participated in the demonstrations and were involved in violent activity, cannot disclaim responsibility − and not only because of their active part in the demonstrations. Their contribution to the army’s takeover and the granting of legitimacy to the current nonelected regime undermined one of the essential foundations of the January 25 revolution, which gave the Muslim Brotherhood legal status and power, with the support of some of the liberal movements.

What the liberal parties did not manage to accomplish with the revolution and the elections they tried to gain by the protest actions that led to Morsi’s overthrow last July, using the claim that the Muslim Brotherhood wished to use democratic means to get rid of democracy — a claim that is not far-fetched. Morsi’s removal, which was accompanied later by administrative measures outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood’s activity, put people in mind of the Mubarak era. But this time, the army and its loyalists in the political leadership are trying to sketch out the difference between themselves and Morsi’s deposed regime, against which the legal struggle is still going on.

That is the job of the trial that started Monday against Morsi and his deputies. Its purpose is not only to convict or acquit the man responsible for the “events of Al-Ittihadiya,” but also mainly to give institutional legitimacy to the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood and the settling of accounts with them. Morsi’s conviction of incitement to violence would justify the seizure of power by his rivals or by the army, without need for any apology or justification from the army or the liberal movements for having removed him from power even before he was proven guilty. In this way, the political revolution that took place in July can receive its own legitimacy after the fact.

A conviction would also give the army an excuse that would satisfy the United States, which continues to waver between condemning the seizure of power and defining it as a coup on the one hand, and its desire to maintain good relations with  on the other. Washington, confused as it is, continues to take harsh criticism from the liberal movements and from the Egyptian army. On Sunday it sent Secretary of State John Kerry to try to mend the rift between the United States and Egypt, but the damage has already been done and the results of the trial will give it, too, the opportunity to embrace the army that saved Egypt from violent criminals.

With considerations like these, the significance of Morsi’s trial goes far beyond an ordinary criminal trial for incitement, violating public order or endangering national security. Under ordinary circumstances, it might have been said that the army took a big risk by putting Morsi on trial, since if he were to be acquitted or convicted of minor offenses, the army would turn from accuser to defendant. As far as the army is concerned, the outcome of the trial cannot be anything other than a sweeping conviction on the severe offenses. But the justice system has already behaved unexpectedly by letting “sure” defendants go free, acquitting Hosni Mubarak of serious crimes and convicting high-ranking figures who were supposedly untouchable.

A riot policeman stands guard behind barbed wire outside of a police academy compound where the trial of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was to be held in Cairo, Egypt Nov. 4, 2013.Credit: AP

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