Putting Egypt’s Coup on Trial
When Egypt’s Defense Minister, General Abdelfattah El-Sisi, deposed President Muhammad Morsi in a military coup depicted as a popular revolt, on July 3, coup leaders were confident that Morsi and his supporters, led by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), would quickly capitulate and recognize the new reality.
Within hours of the coup, hundreds of MB and other anti-coup leaders and popular public figures were rounded up, as most TV and satellite channels deemed to be anti-coup or simply critical of the army’s brazen intervention, were swiftly banned and closed down. At the time, Sisi claimed that he had intervened in order to prevent an impending civil war, and he promised security, stability, and prosperity. But it seems that the generals and their enablers have badly miscalculated. Four months into the bloody coup, Egypt’s deep and unprecedented crisis keeps growing.
It’s a fact that millions of Egyptians initially supported the military intervention in order to overthrow Morsi and the MB and genuinely detested the group or were exasperated with the deteriorating security and economic conditions in the country. However, as I explained in a previous article much of the opposition against Morsi was co-opted by the remnants of the old Mubarak regime and the deep state (the complex web that ruled Egypt for six decades, which comprised of various corrupt but powerful elements within the military, intelligence services, security apparatus, oligarchs, media, judiciary, and state bureaucracy).
Yet, contrary to the image Morsi tried to cultivate during his one-year rule, he was really never able to scratch the surface of, let alone dismantle or control, these powerful and entrenched state institutions, which in reality never recognized his authority. Since then, more evidence has emerged to buttress this fact including footage of a high-ranking police officer admitting before his comrades that the police and army had been planning to overthrow Morsi weeks before the coup. In another audio post a former leader of Tamarrud – the youth movement that suddenly burst into the political scene calling for popular demonstrations and overthrow of Morsi on June 30- regretted his involvement and exposed the surreptitious relationship between his group and pro-Mubarak state security officers.
Since then, millions of other Egyptians have taken to the streets in major demonstrations throughout Egypt on a daily basis, in defiance of the state of emergency imposed by the coup government. The demonstrations call for the restoration of the country’s nascent democracy while demanding the return of the first democratically-elected civilian president, the reinstatement of the parliament banned by the coup, and the restoration of the suspended constitution that was ratified two to one just six months earlier.
The Coup Fails to Subdue its Opponents
But the scheme enacted by Gen. Sisi and his cohorts in order to legitimize their coup and take control of the country hinged on their ability to subdue the opposition and the population, and it rested on three main assumptions. First, Sisi believed that Morsi would quickly follow in the footsteps of Mubarak and resign voluntarily or under pressure. Morsi was essentially kidnapped by the army, kept in isolation, and detained in a hidden location for weeks in an attempt to pressure him to accept the new reality and give up his claim to the presidency.
Nevertheless, Morsi stubbornly rejected all such attempts, insisting that he was the legitimately-elected president and demanding to be restored to his position. Even when the military-backed government resorted to outside mediators, such as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, to convince Morsi and his colleagues that it was over, he still insisted on his legitimacy and refused to step down.
The second tactic was to crack down on the senior leadership of the MB in order to force them to recognize the new regime and accept the new power structure and its political roadmap for the country. In this phase, the military used carrots and sticks, promising inclusion and an undetermined future political role for the group, while it arrested, banished and prosecuted them. But their overtures were once again rejected as the MB negotiators insisted on the restoration of the constitution, the president, and parliament and proclaimed that these democratic institutions were the main achievements of the 2011 popular uprising.
But before the negotiations for an acceptable resolution between the antagonistic parties were further explored, the hardliners within the coup government, led by anti-Islamist high ranking officers from the old state security apparatus and military intelligence, pushed for a military solution. Thus, the tactic of adopting an iron-fist policy by stamping out the MB from all aspects of society prevailed, prompting the resignation of or condemnation by several public figures that initially either encouraged the coup such as Mohammad ElBaradei or accepted it such as AbdelMoneim Abulfutooh.
In the process, not only did all institutions of power within the state join in such as the military, intelligence services, the state security apparatus, government-controlled media, the entire judicial system including the police, prosecutors, and the judiciary, but also non-government media as well as many so-called liberal and secular groups. However, anyone who would sing outside the chorus was unwelcome and considered an outcast. Uncharacteristically for Egypt, a new spirit of chauvinism, fascism, and ugly nationalism engulfed the country. Suddenly all the freedoms Egyptians had gained and enjoyed for two years had become vestiges of the past.
Empowered by the coup and a revengeful spirit, the state security apparatus aided by the army swiftly then launched the largest crackdown against any social movement or political party in the history of the region. It culminated in the arrest of not only the senior leadership of the MB and other Islamist organizations such as Al-Wasat Party, but also in the capture of more than two thousand mid-level leaders that included most of the second and third tiers of the groups on dubious charges such as incitement or simply for just opposing the coup. The list of the detainees has even included well over one hundred university professors, administrators, and deans, as well as dozens of officers of professional syndicates. Shortly thereafter, the judiciary banned the MB, and closed its charities. The government then seized its assets, which included hundreds of properties and bank accounts, even before a final judicial order was issued.
Yet despite the brutal onslaught and the propaganda machine that controlled the airwaves and print media in depicting the group and other Islamist parties as terrorists and outlaws, the MB and their supporters still rejected any deal with the military that recognized the coup, and defiantly pledged to restore Morsi and the constitution through peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience. For six weeks, hundreds of thousands were camped in two main squares in Cairo and other provinces pledging to continue their peaceful protests until their goals are realized.
Shock and Awe: Egyptian Style
Perhaps the most significant outcome of the 2011 uprising was the end of the state of fear of the dreaded security state apparatus that ruled the country by terror and paralyzed most Egyptians for almost six decades. Since early 2011, Egyptians have felt genuinely liberated, empowered, and exercised true freedoms that were denied them for generations. Thus, the third tactic by the coup was the attempt to re-establish control of the society by instilling back that fear in the hearts and souls of the Egyptians before they are accustomed to real freedoms and democratic institutions that would eventually hold powerful interests accountable to the people.
Towards that goal, the army and security forces used brutal tactics that included as many as six shocking massacres in less than 8 weeks culminating in Raba’a Square on August 14. Such ruthlessness resulted in the deaths of as many as five thousand innocent victims, including hundreds of women, children, and elderly people. In addition, more than twenty thousand people were wounded and as many as twelve thousand were detained under emergency laws. Meanwhile, many others were severely beaten, tortured, and humiliated. Hundreds of videos have been circulating that clearly demonstrate that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed by Egypt’s security forces and army.
But despite all of these extraordinary measures to reshape Egyptian society, Egyptians of all strands continue to fill the streets and squares to reject the coup: women and men, young and old, from the rural areas and city dwellers, students and professionals, farmers and laborers. In short, the protests are expanding not receding, while the security and economic situation is becoming intolerable.
Initially, Gen. Sisi promised his supporters in the region and the West that the country would be stable in days. Then that promise changed to weeks, and now he is asking for six to twelve months. In short, the country is in complete disarray with no end in sight. With few exceptions such as Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E, Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authorities (all of them U.S. allies in the region, coincidence?), the world could neither openly recognize the military coup nor turn a blind eye to the daily gross human rights abuses committed by the military-backed government. For example, when Egypt’s foreign minister addressed the U.N. General Assembly in September, he spoke to an empty hall, as 122 countries walked out during his speech. Meanwhile, the Organization of African Unity froze Egypt’s membership and banned its participation in all its institutions until democracy is restored.
A Sham Trial With Biased Judges and Prosecutors
In short, Morsi’s determination created a problem of legitimacy for the coup. He was duly elected in free and fair elections and deposed by a military general, so coup leaders thought they could delegitimize Morsi by charging him criminally.
Since his kidnapping by the military in early July, government prosecutors leveled dubious charges against him without providing any specifics, such as talking to Hamas, or committing acts of treason. Since they were not actually serious about these accusations, in the end, they chose to charge him with incitement to kill protesters near the presidential palace on the night of December 5, 2012.
But what exactly took place that night?
In the aftermath of Morsi’s ill-advised constitutional decree on November 22, 2012, the opposition staged several demonstrations and called for his overthrow.
We now know that for months, former and active state security officers were plotting with the remnants of the Mubarak regime to assassinate the president that evening. Brig. Tareq Al-Gohari who was in charge of the presidential guards protecting the president, recently stated that on that day he heard several high-ranking officers boasting that that night was his last. As he gathered his troops to protect the president, several of them refused to follow directions and many simply deserted their position.
When the president was told that the police was withdrawing, he called the interior minister in charge of security officers at the time, Gen. Ahmad Gamal Eldin who declined to send any protection forces unless the president gave orders to use lethal force. According to justice Minister Judge Ahmad Makki, Morsi immediately rejected the use of live ammunition despite the threat posed by armed gangs that were throwing fire-bombs at the presidential palace and burning five presidential cars. Another group of protesters even brought a bulldozer in order to storm the gate and attack the palace.
When the MB and other groups heard of the attack on the presidential palace and the desertion of the police and presidential guards, they came by the thousands to protect the president. Violent confrontations ensued. Many MB supporters were seen tearing down the oppositions’ camps near the presidential palace. Others were accused of beating and torturing their opponents. By the end of the violent chaotic night, ten people were dead. All of the victims who were killed were on the same side of the street where the MB supporters stood. When the dust settled, out of the ten victims, eight were members of the MB, while the remaining two were killed by simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of them, Al-Husseini Abu Dhief, was a leftist journalist known for being anti-MB. The opposition would accuse the MB of killing him although no evidence or credible witnesses were found. According to the medical examiner’s office, all the bullets that killed the victims came from similar type guns and from one direction.
On that night, Morsi’s supporters arrested 49 people; some of them armed, and accused them of killing the protesters. They were eventually turned over to the police. But within 24 hours, government prosecutor Mustafa Khater released all of them, citing a lack of evidence. When the accused went to trial on August 19, all of them were acquitted even though some of them had been armed when they were arrested.
Two weeks after their acquittal, Morsi and 14 other MB leaders were charged with incitement and murder for that bloody night. But according to the families of the eight victims, the real culprits were baltegies (goons and ex-felons) who were working at the behest of the security forces to commit violent acts and create chaos and terror. They further accused former interior minister Gen. Gamal Eldin of conspiracy to kill their loved ones. Morsi’s co-defendants in these charges included some of his most senior presidential assistants and MB leaders such as Esam El-Erian and Mohammad El-Beltagi. Ironically, these two senior MB leaders were among the most prominent in Tahrir Square during the popular uprising that toppled Mubarak in February 2011. State security officers who were in charge of safeguarding the former regime blamed the MB for their downfall and were seething for revenge.
On November 4, Morsi was brought to the court and seen by the public for the first time since he was overthrown. The current interior minister, Gen. Mohammad Ibrahim, who has been in charge of the crackdown on the anti-coup opposition, led 20,000 police officers in an incredible show of force to surround the police academy-turned courthouse. Morsi’s prosecutor was none other than Khater, the same prosecutor who freed, according to witnesses and families of the victims, the actual culprits. Remarkably, the prosecution cited in their indictment only the two non-MB victims as they dropped the other victims from their list. The families of these eight victims issued a strong statement condemning the prosecutors and absolving Morsi and the MB. They accused the state security of aiding and abetting the culprits.
With eight defendants, including the president, present at trial, none of whom were actually at the scene of the crime, the police only allowed four defense lawyers to be present in the courtroom. Citing security concerns, the police refused to allow 26 other defense lawyers, already cleared by the court to represent the defendants, from attending the trial. Furthermore, the Egyptian legal system allows the victims to also be represented by lawyers. For the two recognized non-MB victims, the court certified 300 lawyers to represent them, all of whom were allowed inside the courtroom. In addition to a handful of foreign journalists, the only local ones who were allowed to attend were those who were pro-coup. Any journalist known to be anti-coup or neutral was denied entry.
When the trial’s chief judge, Ahmad Sabri, asked Morsi to identify himself and acknowledge the court, Morsi immediately declared that he was the legitimate president of the country, who was ousted by a coup. He also chastised the judge and demanded that he recognize that he has no jurisdiction over him or power to try an elected president, as it was clearly unconstitutional. In an attempt to silence Morsi, the hundreds of the pro-coup lawyers and journalists started shouting and demanding his execution and that of his co-defendants. When the judge could not regain control of the court, he adjourned the trial and postponed it until January.
Most Egyptians do not realize that both the prosecutor and the judge have deep ties to the remnants of the old Mubarak regime. They were likely chosen to exact revenge against Morsi and his group. In the past, Khater had acted as an advisor to Mubarak’s last prime minister, Gen. Ahmad Shafiq, who was also Morsi’s opponent in the 2012 presidential race. He was also the chief prosecutor against Mubarak. Eventually, the government’s evidence was deemed so weak that his convictions were overturned, prompting revolutionary groups to accuse Khater of hiding or not presenting any real evidence. He also allowed Mubarak and his sons to pay back some of the bribes he took in exchange for dismissing the corruption charges.
On the other hand, judge Sabri was the same judge who earlier this year acquitted Shafiq of all corruption charges, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He was also the judge who refused last month to free four pro-Morsi defendants accused of torturing a man who had testified before the judge that the defendants had actually helped him and were taking him to the hospital when they were stopped and arrested by police. He testified that he was pressured by the police officers to accuse the defendants of beatings and torture.
While coup leaders thought they could humiliate and delegitimize Morsi through this sham trial, the table was turned on them, as it was Morsi who put the coup leaders, their enablers and supporters on trial.
Egyptians were denied seeing this spectacle, as the trial was not televised. Coup leaders feared what Morsi might say and how they could be exposed. Yet, on TV the people saw a glimpse of their president as a determined, defiant, and confident leader willing to give up his life to preserve their hard-earned freedoms.
The millions of Egyptians who reject the coup and want to restore their democracy were encouraged by this image and vowed to continue their struggle until the coup is defeated as they persist in their daily peaceful demonstrations. To them Morsi has become an icon illustrating strong determination to stare down the coup, champion the cause of freedom, stand up for democratic ideals, and defend the will of his people.
Esam Al-Amin is the author of The Arab Awakening Unveiled: Understanding Transformations and Revolutions in the Middle East. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.