CAIRO – Egypt's new military-backed government had hoped trying Mohammed Morsi would close the chapter on his presidency. Instead, the trial of the ousted Islamist president on charges of inciting murder, which begins Monday, is only compounding their troubles.
Morsi's supporters plan widespread protests on the day of the trial, threatening to disrupt the proceedings. Security concerns are so high that the venue for the trial has still not been formally announced, though it is expected to be held in a heavily secured police academy in Cairo.
Then there is the political risk of Morsi's anticipated first public appearance since the military deposed him on July 3 and locked him in secret detention, virtually incommunicado. Morsi will likely represent himself in the trial, the first time public figure to do so in the host of trials of politicians since autocrat Hosni Mubarak's ouster in 2011, Brotherhood lawyers say. He will use the platform to insist he is still the true president, question the trial's legitimacy and turn it into an indictment of the coup, further energizing his supporters in the street.
If Morsi is not brought to court at all, his absence will further throw into question the fairness of a trial that rights experts say is already in doubt. Morsi's Brotherhood has denounced the trial as a farce aimed at political revenge.
During four months of detention in undisclosed military facilities, Morsi has been extensively questioned and has not been allowed to meet with lawyers. Virtually his only contact with the outside world was two phone calls with his family. Brotherhood supporters have called the detention an outright kidnapping, and Morsi has refused to cooperate with his interrogators.
Rights groups say the first test in the trial will be if the judge rules whether Morsi should be brought out of secret detention and moved to a regular prison during the trial. Authorities have said military detention is necessary for security reasons in the country's turmoil.
Further weighing on the trial's fairness, Morsi will be tried in a judicial system stacked with his adversaries, with whom he clashed repeatedly during his year-long presidency. Rights activists — even ones who believe Morsi should be tried for abuses during his presidency — fear the proceedings are more concerned with retribution than justice. And the trial is taking place in the atmosphere of a widescale crackdown on the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies in which several thousand have been arrested and hundreds killed.
For the military-backed government, the trial is key to showing its plan for political transition toward democracy is on track. Authorities want to show the international community, sharply critical of the anti-Brotherhood crackdown, that they are justified in moving against the Islamist group by proving Morsi committed real crimes.
The military says it removed Morsi only after the public turned against him with protests by millions demanding his removal, accusing him and the Brotherhood of trying to subvert the law and impose their will on the country. Morsi's supporters accuse the military of crushing Egypt's nascent democracy by overturning the results of multiple elections won by the Islamists the past 2 ½ years.
"Undoubtedly, this is an unfair trial par excellence. It is fallout from the coup," said Mohammed el-Damati, senior lawyer in the Brotherhood legal team that plans to be present in the court. But Morsi — who is an engineer by training — "has the experience to defend himself. He knows his case well, on the law and the politics ... He will do it eloquently," he said.
By convicting Morsi, the authorities think "the issue of the legitimacy of the president — which is what rattles this coup regime — will end," he said.
"But for us, the issue is not about Morsi alone. It is about constitutional legitimacy."
Morsi's supporters have been protesting nearly daily and intend to intensify their rallies in an attempt to wreck the trial — once they confirm in Morsi's first appearance that he is in good health.
"If the trial is stopped, it will be a setback (for authorities). If we can stop this trial, we will stop their progress" on the transition plan, said Khaled Mahmoud, a Brotherhood youth member.
Morsi is on trial with 14 other Brotherhood members on charges of inciting the killing of protesters who massed outside his presidential palace in December, demanding he call off a referendum on the constitution drafted by his Islamist allies. Brotherhood members attacked a sit-in by the protesters, sparking clashes that left 10 people dead.
Egyptians officials insist the trial is straightforward and say Morsi will be treated no differently from Mubarak.
"Nothing extraordinary, nothing exceptional," Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr AbdelAtty told reporters this week. Morsi "will have the full rights to have a free and fair trial in accordance to due process. He will have his own lawyer ... he will have the whole due process, and he will have the right to go to appeal."
The trial of Mubarak, launched in 2011, was high drama, but it was not as politically fraught as Morsi's. Mubarak was convicted and given a life sentence in 2012 on charges connected to the killing of hundreds of protesters by police during the uprising against him. But the verdict was later overturned on grounds prosecutors had not fully proven the charges, and his retrial began earlier this year.
The opening of Mubarak's first trial, televised live, was stunning for Egyptians: the autocratic leader for nearly 30 years, now lying on a hospital gurney in the defendant's cage, appearing weak and hard of hearing.
He made no attempt to turn the trial into a show. His words in the first session — "I am present your honor," and then "I deny all these charges categorically" — were his only comments in a trial that lasted almost a year. Some of his supporters rallied outside the courtroom, at times clashing with families of slain protesters. But the trial stirred no greater unrest.
In contrast, the prospect of unrest over Morsi's trial has led to a blanket of secrecy and a massive security buildup. A force of 20,000 policemen will secure the trial venue. Security officials have been quoted in Egyptian media saying the trial should not be televised, though no formal decision has been announced.
A military and security official said authorities fear militant attacks to distract authorities and sabotage the day. They said they recently uncovered a number of weapons caches, including a set of rocket launchers at a farm in a city close to Cairo that they believe were linked to plans to cause unrest around the trial. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Although the venue has not been formally announced, it is expected to be held in a special courtroom set up in a police academy inside a walled security complex near Cairo's Tora prison, where a number of Morsi's co-defendants are being held.
Nasser Amin, a member of the National Council for Human Rights and director of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary, said the trials of both Morsi and Mubarak are "a first step in establishing for the rule of law. The head of the state, even an elected one, can be tried." He argued against Morsi's ability to use the trial as a political platform, saying judges have the right to stop political speeches.
But el-Damati said Morsi will question the legality of the trial, arguing that procedures for trying a sitting president under the now suspended constitution have not been followed.
By going after the coup itself, Morsi will turn things around, el-Damati said.
"He will put a man who has been flipped onto his head back on his feet."