If Egypt’s military government was looking for a sideshow to distract attention from problems elsewhere, then the circus at Cairo’s police academy yesterday certainly provided it. Indeed, such were the theatrics at the trial of Egypt’s ousted Islamist President, on charges of inciting violence, that proceedings barely got started before they were adjourned.
First, the hearing was delayed because Mohamed Morsi’s refusal to recognise the authority of the court stretched to a refusal to wear the required prison uniform. Then his repeated interruptions – “this is not a legitimate trial, this trial is part of the coup” – and the chanting of “illegal, illegal” by his 14 co-defendants, proved unendurable and matters were put off until January. Out on the streets, the last-minute change of venue, aimed at avoiding mass demonstrations, was only partially successful.
It is difficult not to concede Mr Morsi’s point. Unpopular or not, he was still democratically elected. Not only was his toppling in July a coup; what has followed gives little cause for optimism. More than 2,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been killed in clashes with security forces, the organisation’s activities have been banned, and the state-backed media has gone into overdrive whipping up anti-Morsi and anti-US sentiment in equal measure. With freedoms increasingly restricted, dissenters harassed, and the military back on top, Egypt feels uncomfortably as if it has reverted to pre-Arab Spring type, albeit without Hosni Mubarak.
General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi et al must do much to live up to the claim that their actions were not an attack on their country’s embryonic democracy. The former President’s trial must be conducted with all possible transparency. The temptation to crack down on political opponents must be resisted. And the promised return to the ballot box must be expedited.
If all goes to plan, Egypt will have a new constitution by December, and a referendum to approve it shortly thereafter. Elections, parliamentary and presidential, will follow towards the middle of the year. The timetable is certainly an ambitious one; and the positive noises from the US at the weekend say more about Washington’s keenness to mend fences with a key regional ally than about actual progress.
There is every reason to hurry, though; and not just to restore political legitimacy. In no small part, Mr Morsi’s unpopularity stemmed from his failure to tackle economic problems from joblessness to inflation. His removal raised expectations of speedy improvements and supporters of the coup are already growing impatient. The charges against Mr Morsi, with more than a whiff of the show trial about them, are in part an effort to buy time. But that will not be enough. Egypt is crying out for structural reforms to free up its economy and improve its citizens’ lives. Until then, its politics will remain unstable, repressive, or both.