We knew what President Mohamed Morsi would say yesterday as he faced his judges for the first time. And he said it. “I am the President of the Republic,” he shouted.
And as the court descended into Dickensian uproar, Egyptian journalists – never ones to avoid participating in their own news stories – shrieked at Morsi and his six co-accused over and over again. “Execute them – Execute them!” they chorused, and of course the cops – and there were hundreds of them, in white uniforms, plain clothes, some chain-smoking, others wearing flak jackets, did absolutely nothing to end this monstrous circus.
Maybe they agreed with their own journalists, but at one point lawyers for Muslim Brotherhood defendants were fighting on the tops of court benches with Egyptian reporters and policemen while Morsi and his former comrades – who had met for the first time since the military coup in July – watched placidly from within their iron cage.
It would be easy to joke about this carnival of a court, its cops pleading with mobs of reporters and advocates to stop shouting and fighting while Egypt’s former president – for that is what he is – stood in his business suit, grey bearded, occasionally bear-hugging his fellow prisoners, all behind pitch black bars at the end of the gaunt, wooden-panelled courtroom. But this was part of Egypt’s post-revolutionary tragedy, an elected leader standing on charges of incitement to kill, an accusation which – if proved to the satisfaction of the court – could cost him his life.
No-one believes it will. The journalists would not have been baying for his hanging if they thought he would be sentenced to death. Just as Morsi himself would never have claimed he was still the president of Egypt if he really believed he was.
But that, needless to say, is what this historically unprecedented hearing – in the same police academy as Morsi’s dictator predecessor Hosni Mubarak was tried – was all about: whether post-revolutionary Egypt can have a working democracy, whether Arab governments can represent their entire nations – whether their administrations can be ‘inclusive’, as we snobbish westerners preach to them – or whether the people who struggled, and still struggle so bravely for their dignity and freedom must clap their hands in weary unison at the appearance of yet another general.
The portents yesterday were not good. The cops on the gate were all on best behaviour. They shook our hands, smiled a lot, took our passports and mobiles, handed out laminated plastic identity numbers, bussed us to the court, prowled respectfully through files, books and handbags. Only when we reached the courthouse did we realise with whom we were to share the experience: more cops. Hundreds of them, filling the front seats, the side aisles, the seats at both ends of the benches, the dais behind the judge’s chair, with another three dozen crammed into an adjacent iron cage just in case Mohamed Morsi stretched out angel’s wings and flew through the bars.
We hadn’t seen Morsi since the coup – no one had, in public – but he looked fit enough, maybe a trifle plumper, speaking animatedly to his colleagues who were wearing prisoners’ white jump suites. His party crony Mohamed Beltagy was there and we could see Essam el-Arian, the Brotherhood leader, and I think it was he – the shrieking in the courtroom made such identities difficult – who shouted that a criminal court should not be trying their case, that the hearing was “illegal…unfair, unjust, unconstitutional”. Six of the prisoners had been held at the police academy since dawn – Morsi arrived at 7.20 am – and el-Arian went on bellowing that all had been “tortured” and deprived of all lawyers since their arrest.
The lawyers themselves complained that they had been given no time to prepare their cases. They demanded to know why plain clothes men suddenly emerged behind the judge with cameras and why the cops spent their time taking photographs of those lawyers working for Morsi and his fellow prisoners. Judge Ahmed Sabri Youssef chose not to explain who these strange men were. At one point, lawyers for Morsi and his colleagues brandished the four-finger ‘Rabaa’ symbol of the Brotherhood opposition, along with sketches of a pro-Brotherhood journalist who was killed in Tahrir square. They were met by hoots of derision by Egyptian reporters and some of the cops. Nuremberg this wasn’t.
The judge read out the name of Mohamed Mohamed Morsi – his middle name denotes that his father was also called Mohamed – and of course it was for him we had all come to this very odd court. Ahmed Abdul-Ati, another of the defendants, told reporters through the cage wire that Morsi had seen none of his assistants since July – which is why, after Judge Youssef stormed out of the court for the first time after only 10 minutes – we could see Morsi in earnest conversation with his former colleagues, probably the first serious meeting of the banned Freedom and Justice Party since the coup. Morsi kissed one of the prisoners on both cheeks.
When he interrupted Judge Youssef, his voice sounded loud and confident. “I am the President of the Republic,” he stated. “The coup is a crime. The court is held responsible for this crime. Everything that is happening here is a cover for the coup. It’s a tragedy that Egypt’s great judiciary should be a cover for the coup.” And as he was shouted down – again by Egyptian journalists, not by the judge – Morsi could be heard saying that “don’t let it fool you…this is all in the interests of the external enemy…”
There were other remarks from Morsi, difficult to hear because he was so frequently shouted down. He said that he respected the members of the court, but that it had no constitutional right to try a head of state. “I am the president of the state, and I am being held against my will.” And that was why he insisted he was still the president; because if he was not, then the court might very well try him.
He struggled on. As the sound men ramped up the volume on the judge’s microphone to drown Morsi’s words, he could be heard pleading: “Give me something (a microphone) so I can speak to you.” “Not now,” the judge snapped back. If a court could show the divisions of a nation, this one did. Morsi might have sound legal grounds to object to the hearing but, alas, an awful lot of people believe he should never have been elected, that he never acted as their president and was thrown from power in ignominy last July because he was planning a coup of his own.
Outside the academy, a great city of cops on the former desert around Maadi, the riot police were fixing gas canisters to their guns opposite hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators. A gang of armed thugs – of the government variety – began to chase men across a car park. Court adjourned, as they say. Till January 8. And all in all, a pretty disgraceful day.