Egypt’s former President Mohamed Mursi went on trial today and said his overthrow was a military coup and he remains the country’s legitimate leader.
“The coup is treason,” Mursi, who hadn’t been seen in public since his July 3 ouster, told the court in Cairo. “I’m the president of the republic and I’m here against my will.” He refused to enter a plea on charges of inciting violence that led to the killing of protesters last year, and challenged the court’s jurisdiction to try him.
Chants and interruptions by Mursi and his 14 co-defendants frequently drowned out proceedings before the court adjourned the hearing until Jan. 8, after lawyers asked for a chance to review the documents.
Violence has escalated since the military’s overthrow of Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected civilian leader. A crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood backers has left hundreds dead and hundreds more in jail amid continued protests against the army intervention and regular attacks by militants.
The ex-president’s stance in court may encourage supporters to “maintain their general defiance,” said Yasser el-Shimy, a Cairo-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. It will “send a message to his supporters that he remains uncompromising” and is ready to sacrifice as much as they are.
Mursi was flown by helicopter from an undisclosed location to the heavily secured court in a police academy on Cairo’s outskirts. If convicted, he could face the death penalty, according to state-run newspaper Al-Ahram.
Mursi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, who was forced from power in 2011, is being re-tried at the same venue. In contrast to Mubarak, who was wheeled into his first hearing on a hospital bed and spoke little in court, Mursi was openly defiant.
State television aired snippets of the trial, showing him arriving wearing a dark suit and no tie. Inside, he stood at the front of the defendants’ cage, while many of his co-defendants stood with their backs to the court.
“Mursi was strong and solid, he deserved to be president of this country,” Galal El-Etr, a 43-year-old businessman, said outside the court. “His strength will strengthen the protesters in the streets.”
Inside the chamber, some people were chanting for the defendants to be executed while Mursi’s supporters saluted “the steadfastness of the president.”
Egypt’s army and the interim government it supports are “counting on Mursi’s trial to seem more legitimate” and to further demonize his one-year administration, said Ziad Akl, a researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. The army says its toppling of the elected president was an expression of the people’s will after days of protests against him.
The court area was largely sealed off, and only people with special permits were allowed to approach. Checkpoints were set up on the highway alongside the facility and military personnel carriers were posted outside. Beyond the barriers, several dozen Mursi supporters chanted against the army and its chief, Defense Minister Abdelfatah al-Seesi.
Egypt’s benchmark stock index rose 0.6 percent, extending gains since Mursi’s overthrow to 25 percent. The yield on Eurobonds due in 2020, which approached 11 percent on July 3, rose two basis points to 7.24 percent.
The interim government has pledged to hold elections next year. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited Cairo yesterday, urged the country’s leaders to fulfill that promise. The U.S., a longtime ally and financial backer of Egypt’s army, has cut some aid since it toppled Mursi.
The charges against Mursi date back to violence that erupted during protests outside the Ittihadiya palace in Cairo last year. Some of the defendants are accused of torturing demonstrators.
Sahar Abdel-Mohsen said she was there and described it as “one of the darkest days of my life.”
“Mursi killed innocent people, silenced the voice of opposition just like any dictator,” said the architect, who said she had voted for him.
Mursi’s supporters question whether he’ll get a fair trial from a judicial system that was frequently at loggerheads with him during his year in office. The government said the former president is being tried on criminal charges not political ones and “enjoys his full legal rights.”