The Many Trials of Mohamed Morsi
May 2, 2015
There is a method to the madness that has become the Egyptian judiciary. Last week, an Egyptian court sentenced former President Mohamed Morsi and fourteen others to twenty years in prison for their roles in the detention and torture of protesters outside the Ittihadiyyah presidential palace by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in December 2012. The first conviction and sentencing of Morsi, who faces several more trials and a long list of additional charges, is intended to bring closure to Egypt’s post-coup political turmoil.
Ever since it overthrew Morsi and regained control of the Egyptian state in July 2013, the military has been aggressively rewriting the narrative of the past four years. If its version of events is to be believed, the only “revolution” to have taken place in Egypt was the one to reaffirm the primacy of the state’s authoritarian institutions in the face of the anarchic and violent forces of instability and terrorism. The post-Mubarak transition, with its interplay between mass mobilizations and free elections, was but a brief if volatile deviation from the path to the military’s reclamation of the reins of the state by its head and presumptive savior of the nation, Abdelfattah al-Sisi. That the regime’s old foe, the Muslim Brotherhood, attempted to play such a dominant role in the erstwhile transition played well into an emerging narrative that tapped into age-old tropes about the threat facing Egyptians from Islamist tyranny and terror.
The unexpected 2011 ouster of Mubarak by mass protests necessitated the aggressive intervention of various organs of the Egyptian state during critical moments of the post-Mubarak period. State and private media loyal to the former regime cultivated a climate hostile to its political opponents and paved the way for the collective acceptance of mass state violence through its relentless incitement against Morsi and his supporters.
Choosing its moment carefully, the military intervened to remove Morsi from the presidency and cast a wide net to arrest and detain the opposition, beginning with the Islamists and extending to activists of all political stripes. Over 41,000 Egyptians remain imprisoned on political charges. The military furthermore restored a culture of fear through its strategic (albeit indiscriminate) use of violence during the sit-in at Rabaa and in a number of other incidents since the August 2013 massacre.
Not to be outdone, the Egyptian judiciary has played an equally critical role throughout these events. Its rulings throughout the post-Mubarak transition, from the dissolution of Egypt’s first democratically elected parliament to its failure to convict any officials from the former regime, ensured that any attempts at revolutionary change would be thwarted.
In the post-coup realignment, the judiciary has stepped in to mask the arbitrariness and violence of the military’s actions with the illusion of due process and legal procedure. Though its attempts to provide legal cover for its abuses have been deemed laughable by international observers and human rights organizations, the judiciary’s abuse of the law to reassert the state’s power over its citizens is intended for domestic consumption rather than international legitimization.
Nearly three months after the military had effectively shut down the organization through arrests, asset seizures, and mass killings of its supporters, an Egyptian court formally outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood by judicial decree. In the subsequent trials of Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders, the judiciary has continued to provide legal cover for the coup and legitimization of the new regime.
To dispel reports that Morsi was held illegally in an undisclosed location following his overthrow, conversations by state officials leaked late last year revealed that the Sisi regime attempted to cover its tracks by declaring one of the military’s facilities a state prison. By posting a new sign and putting up a prison fence around the building, state authorities took steps intended to aid judges in denying requests by defense attorneys to release Morsi following his unlawful arrest and detention.
Similarly, the timing of Morsi’s recent conviction came just as the state was reaching the legal limit of its power to hold him without having convicted him of any crime. A Human Rights Watch report condemned the Morsi trial as politically motivated and declared that “the prosecution didn’t establish his criminal guilt in this case.”
As other cases involving hundreds of defendants who were given mass death sentences have underscored, these show trials are not about establishing guilt through the use of evidence—they are about the illusion of procedure.
In fact, rather than an indictment of his actions while in office, the remaining cases against Morsi symbolize a repudiation of the revolutionary moment that Egypt experienced with Mubarak’s overthrow.
Charges of escaping prison during the 2011 uprising stem from the fact that the Mubarak regime detained Morsi along with a number of other activists to prevent their participation in the January 25 protests. The “prison escape” case is beyond Kafaesque in its attempts to condemn the political prisoners of the Mubarak era for daring to challenge the state at a time when its most oppressive structures were being confronted by the largest mass mobilization in Egyptian history.
In the most politicized of all of the charges he faces, the espionage case accuses Morsi of collaborating with foreign enemies to undermine Egyptian national security. In a case that is more concerned with the abrupt regional realignment of the new regime, the charges feed into crudely conceived conspiracy theories surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood’s supposed collaboration with Sisi’s regional foes, from Qatar and Iran to Hamas and Hezbollah. The immense economic and diplomatic support Sisi has received from Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE has required legitimization of the new alliances through a thorough condemnation of the prior regional relationships cultivated by Morsi. If convicted in the espionage case, Morsi faces the death penalty.
If only to reassert its own supremacy over a deposed president, an Egyptian court has also charged Morsi with “insulting the judiciary,” a criminal charge that has been levied against a number of activists in recent years in an attempt to chill dissent. Its use in this particular instance against the most high profile of Egypt’s political prisoners sends an unequivocal message to would-be agitators that any criticism of the state’s actions will not be tolerated.
Finally, on the same day it convicted him in the Ittihadiyyah case, the judiciary announced a fresh set of charges against Morsi, accusing him of inciting the protesters at Rabaa to violence. The judges were seemingly indifferent to the fact that Morsi was being held incommunicado throughout the six week sit-ins that followed the July 3 coup, and that the protesters were actually responding to the military’s overthrow and detention of the president. In the latest effort to rewrite history and cement a new political reality in Egypt, responsibility for the Rabaa massacre—the deadliest use of state violence in the country’s modern history—will now likely be laid at Morsi’s feet.
The short-lived Morsi presidency was notable in large part for its displays of woeful hubris, perpetual inflexibility and political naiveté. But the laundry list of criminal charges facing the former president have nothing to do with his actual performance in government and everything to do with solidifying Egypt’s new authoritarianism.
Article published by Al Jazeera on May 2, 2015