During a court recess on Monday, I approached the floor-to-ceiling, webbed-metal cage confining Mohamed Morsi, the deposed president of Egypt, and seven other defendants.
I sneaked a peek past a security guard. Mr. Morsi stood surrounded by his former aides and fellow defendants from the Muslim Brotherhood. They were dressed in white garments, as required by the authorities. He wore a blue business suit.
Mr. Morsi hadn’t been seen in public since early July, when the country’s military removed him from power. He looked healthy. He also looked quietly defiant in that dark outfit that inexplicably deviated from the rules.
Twenty minutes earlier, Mr. Morsi had walked into a makeshift courtroom at the Cairo police academy to answer to charges of incitement to murder and torture for casualties resulting from clashes between his Muslim Brotherhood and opposition protesters on Dec. 5-6, 2012. The defense lawyers welcomed his appearance by standing on the wooden benches, chanting in praise of his “resilience” and flashing the four-finger sign that has come to symbolize the military’s deadly crackdown on his supporters last August.
It was an altogether different spectacle from the televised trial of Mr. Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. When Mr. Mubarak was brought into court on a stretcher in August 2011 — six months after he was toppled from nearly three decades in power — he merely affirmed his presence and denied, in the most general terms, being responsible for the deaths of protesters during the 2011 revolution. He also wore white.
Mr. Morsi on Monday was all pointed defiance. He rejected the court’s jurisdiction: The proceedings, he said, were simply “a cover for the military coup” that toppled him. Twice the judge called a recess to maintain order while Mr. Morsi and his co-defendants talked loudly, ignoring his questions about procedure.
Mr. Morsi’s bluster aside, however, the two trials are more similar than not. In less than three years, Egypt has brought two former presidents to the dock. And these cases, both politicized to serve the interests of the authorities of the day, have brought no credit to Egypt’s judicial system, or the rule of law.
On Monday, Mohamed Salim el-Awa, a prominent Islamist lawyer dispatched by Mr. Morsi’s political party to represent him, invoked the 2012 Constitution, the basic law adopted during Mr. Morsi’s brief presidency that has since been suspended. Mr. el-Awa cited Article 152, which deals with the rules governing impeachment. “This,” he told the judges, “is not a proper court to try a president.”
Lawyers representing other defendants were also blunt. At least ten people are said to have been killed during the clashes between the Brotherhood and opposition protesters during that December night. But only three of the victims were named in the prosecution’s papers. The rest of the dead were simply identified as “others.”
“How come there is a clash between two sides and only one is brought to court?” one defense lawyer said to me during one of many sideline discussions between lawyers and reporters at the recess. Another observed that the interim military government is worried that if victims among the Brotherhood also had a part in the trial, “their families would gain access to the court and accuse the incumbent regime.” Other lawyers pointed out that Mr. Morsi had been held incommunicado with no access to counsel until the first court break on Monday.
Standing three feet from the metal fence that separated the judges’ bench from the rest of the courtroom, Ragia Omran, a lawyer for some of the victims, tried to defend the proceedings. The trial wasn’t political, she argued. Yes, the charges were brought many months after the fact, and only after Mr. Morsi was deposed. But, Ms. Omran said, she and other lawyers from the Front to Defend Egypt Protesters, had been working on the case since December. “It’s important to note that,” she told journalists, raising an index finger for emphasis.
It’s also important to note that she and other lawyers representing the civilians killed, tortured or injured since the fall of Mubarak are settling for what they can get: an accounting from at least a few of the men they believe to be guilty for the anti-protester violence. Never mind that these men, now fallen from power, are being scapegoated by the current authorities. And never mind that these authorities have carefully crafted this case so as to remain immune from prosecution themselves: The bloodshed of Dec. 5-6, 2012, doesn’t implicate any state institutions or security services.
Yet there are victims on all sides. Hundreds of Brotherhood members have been slain by the military since Mr. Morsi was ousted. And no government prosecutor is speaking for them.
The next hearing in Mr. Morsi’s trial is scheduled for Jan. 8. By then it should be clear whether he recognizes the court’s authority. It’s already clear, however, that whatever justice this court renders will be partial at best.
Sarah El Sirgany is a journalist who has contributed to CNN, Al-Akhbar and Al-Monitor.