The trial of the ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, which opened and adjourned on Monday, is a fundamentally political affair – as was the trial of his overthrown predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak’s biggest crime was presiding over a police state for 30 years. But he wasn’t tried for that. Morsi’s was a betrayal of the democratic values that brought him to power, but the charges against him say nothing of the sort. In Egypt’s penal code no such acts are prohibited.
And just as Mubarak’s laws got him off the hook, the same, unreformed laws may very well be used to nail Morsi. Only a new legal framework could have laid the foundation for a fair and transparent judicial process. But for selfish reasons neither the military who took over from Mubarak in 2011 nor Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood when it was in power, pursued this course of action. Instead, Egypt’s leaders – of whatever ideological hue – continue to refuse to learn from other countries, or from their own mistakes.
Egypt is in a quagmire. The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of its old political class (the Islamists as well as the secularists) who have followed their narrow interests at the expense of everyone else. Either all or nothing.
Morsi’s brief and defiant appearance in court (he reportedly told the judge “I am the legitimate president”, and refused to wear the white prison uniform) confirmed what many feared. The Muslim Brotherhood is determined to fight on. Clashes between its supporters and police in Cairo and Alexandria may very well escalate and turn bloody. Against the good advice of some of their best friends, the Brotherhood’s leaders refuse to see that every demonstration, jammed road or disrupted trip on the Cairo underground serves only to swell the ranks of their enemies and detractors.
For a people who have endured all kinds of despots for centuries, the trials of two ousted presidents are truly seismic events, leading inevitably to instability and uncertainty. Is there anything the outside world can do to help?
On the political front, any mediation by the EU or others would only make matters worse. It would raise the Brotherhood’s hopes that its daily disruption of public life is bearing fruit, and that someone will come to its rescue – which is patently not the case. The widespread perception in Egypt that the EU has been pressuring the interim government on the Brotherhood’s behalf has infuriated public opinion, hardening the nationalist belief that it is a treasonous organisation soliciting foreign intervention in Egypt’s internal affairs.
However, trade and revitalised tourism could inject hope where politics appears to spread despair. The outside world can offer assistance on how to reform Egypt’s dysfunctional state machinery. Otherwise the Egyptians are better left to work out their political differences on their own.
Healing Egypt’s political wounds will not be easy, because the divisions are multilayered and no longer limited to the simple binary of Islamists versus seculars. There is a third group that wants to work outside this polarisation, and a fourth that clings on to the military as the saviours. Add to all this the stalwarts of the old Mubarak regime: powerful people determined to preserve the state that served them so well.
It’s perhaps no longer realistic to expect any major overhaul of the legal system or the police – longstanding demands of the revolution. Putting Morsi and Mubarak behind bars will not end Egypt’s political turmoil. The interim government has in fact responded to such demands by creating a minister for transitional justice – but the new official, whose name is hardly known to anyone in Egypt, has so far done virtually nothing.
Magdi Abdelhadi is a freelance writer and broadcaster and former Arab affairs analyst for the BBC.