CAIRO — As Egypt’s new military-led government consolidates its power, Mohammed Morsi, the deposed president, went on trial Monday, facing charges of inciting the murder of protesters, but he rejected the court’s authority and proclaimed himself to be the country’s legitimate ruler.
The trial got off to a late start, and the case was soon adjourned until Jan. 8. The trial’s brief opening was Morsi’s first public appearance since his removal from office on July 3 and, in a dizzying turn for Egypt, the second criminal trial of a former head of state in less than three years. Former President Hosni Mubarak, ousted in February 2011 and now under house arrest in a military hospital, is facing a retrial at the same site, the auditorium of a police academy.
According to the website of Al Ahram, Egypt’s flagship state newspaper, the trial got underway as Morsi and 14 other Islamist defendants appeared in a caged dock and court officials called out their names. But news reports said the hearing was first delayed and then suspended after Morsi refused to dress in prison clothing and chants by his co-defendants drowned out the proceedings.
Journalists who were allowed into the courtroom were not permitted to take telephones or other communications devices, limiting the flow of information. But witnesses in the courtroom said that Morsi declared, “This trial is illegitimate,” and said he was still Egypt’s lawful president.
Morsi’s Islamist allies in the Muslim Brotherhood had called for major protests against the trial, and the Interior Ministry said it had deployed thousands of riot police officers to secure the streets. Shortly before 11 a.m., as the trial began, the streets remained quiet, but the number of demonstrators began to grow from only a few dozen to perhaps 100 in two locations outside the court.
Pro-Morsi demonstrators gathered in larger numbers at the Supreme Constitutional Court in the Maadi district of southern Cairo, witnesses said.
For the new government installed by Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the trial will be a ritual demonstration of its repeated assurances that there will be no turning back from the overthrow of Morsi or from the cancellation of the Islamist-drafted constitution approved in December in a national referendum. The court proceedings add formal legal legitimacy to Morsi’s incarceration, analysts said, so that it is no longer by military fiat alone.
He is charged with inciting the murders of protesters outside the presidential palace in December. As aggressive protesters began encircling the palace, the police refused to protect it. So on Dec. 5, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood called for the president’s Islamist supporters to do the job. A night of deadly fighting ensued, with Molotov cocktails and gunshots coming from both sides. By morning, at least 11 people were dead, including eight supporters of the president and three non-Islamists, according to news reports. Prosecutors have not charged anyone over the Islamists’ deaths, and the charges against Morsi are related to the killing of three non-Islamists.