CAIRO – Ousted President Mohammed Morsi refused to wear a prison jumpsuit, entering the caged dock in a dark business suit as his co-defendants applauded. He defiantly questioned the legitimacy of the court and proclaimed himself still Egypt’s leader. His fellow Muslim Brotherhood members chanted, “Down with military rule!”
Morsi’s long-awaited trial got off to a chaotic start Monday, with outbursts and interruptions, and it was quickly adjourned until Jan. 8.
The dramatic first public appearance for Morsi since the July 3 military coup that removed him from power was meant to be a step toward due process. Instead, it highlighted the challenges facing Egypt’s interim authorities as they attempt to close a chapter of his presidency, while his Islamist supporters seek to disrupt the effort.
Morsi and 14 co-defendants – seven of whom are still at large – are charged with inciting the killing of protesters who massed outside the presidential palace in December 2012 and demanded that he call off a referendum on a new Islamist-drafted constitution. Brotherhood members attacked a sit-in by the protesters, sparking clashes that left 10 people dead.
Before Monday’s session began, silent video broadcast on state TV showed Morsi arriving in a minibus outside the makeshift courtroom at a police academy in eastern Cairo. He wore the dark suit, light shirt and no tie, flanked by burly policemen.
A smiling Morsi later walked into the cage in the court – still in the same garb, unlike his co-defendants in white prison jumpsuits. They stood in two lines like a presidential honor guard, applauding and raising their hands in a four-fingered gesture – commemorating the hundreds of his supporters killed when security forces moved to clear protest encampments in August. Another defendant – an aide held with him in the secret military location – also was in a suit.
Feisty and healthy-looking after four months of secret detention, the 62-year-old Morsi immediately started talking even before Judge Ahmed Sabry Youssef gave him the floor.
“What is going on now is a cover for a military coup,” Morsi shouted in a voice that echoed through the courtroom. “I warn everybody. ... I wish that the Egyptian judiciary would not become one day a cover for the military coup.”
The defense lawyers clapped. Chants from his fellow defendants followed: “Down, down with military rule!”
Youssef tried to calm the raucous scene.
“This is enough. The court wants to carry on and provide you with the guarantees necessary” for a fair trial, he said.
But Morsi repeated at least four times, “I am the president of the republic.”
He rejected the proceedings and said he had been forced to attend. “I am here by force and against my will. The coup is a crime and treason,” he said
Morsi refused to enter a plea and demanded that he be given a microphone, although his voice was loud enough for everyone in the courtroom to hear.
“This is not my court,” Morsi went on. “This court, with all due respect, doesn’t have jurisdiction over the president. There is a military coup in this country. The leaders of this coup must be brought to trial according to the constitution.”
At one point, some journalists in court shouted: “Execution, you will get execution, Morsi!”
Morsi had set the unruly tone, interrupting the judge, speaking when he wanted to, and once even talking over a defense lawyer. “I want to comment here,” he said.
Similarly defiant was Mohammed el-Beltagy, a senior Brotherhood leader who repeatedly interrupted the judge.
“You are not paying attention. You will get the chance to speak,” the judge told him.
Snapped el-Beltagy: “It is you who is not paying attention.”
After a rowdy 10 minutes, Youssef adjourned the session because of the interruptions. When it resumed more than 75 minutes later, the lawyers had their first meeting with Morsi and the co-defendants.
Lawyer Mohammed El-Damaty said Morsi spent most of the time inquiring about conditions in Egypt, his supporters and what happened during his detention.
At one point, Morsi addressed the security detail guarding him in a voice loud enough for the room to hear: “Let no one trick you again and make you kill (Egyptians). This is all for the benefit of the enemy, our enemies outside.”
Reporters in the courtroom were not allowed to bring cameras, computers or cellphones as authorities sought to keep tight control on the proceedings.
The case against Morsi and the other defendants is rooted in complaints filed against them by rights activists at the time of the December riots. It is not related to events stemming from the coup, contrary to what Morsi’s supporters maintain.
“This case is a turning point and the beginning of the downfall of Morsi,” said Ragia Omran, a lawyer who represents two of the slain victims.
If convicted, Morsi and the other defendants could face the death penalty.
After the adjournment, Morsi was taken to Bourg el-Arab, a prison in the desert near the Mediterranean city of Alexandra. His co-defendants are being held in a prison near Cairo.
The military says it removed Morsi only after millions of Egyptians marched in the streets demanding his ouster, accusing him and the Brotherhood of trying to subvert the law and impose their will on the country during his year in office.
Morsi’s supporters accuse the military of crushing Egypt’s nascent democracy by overturning the results of multiple elections won by the Islamists since the 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising.
H.A. Hellyer, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the trial will allow the Muslim Brotherhood and its backers “to take a public, political position denouncing the ouster of Morsi.”
“For the state, it is an opportunity to show that the state’s institutions are in control, and the Muslim Brotherhood period in power is to be consigned to history,” he added.
Rights advocates expressed concern about the fairness of the trial, which is taking place amid a wide scale crackdown on the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies in which several thousand have been arrested and hundreds killed. The judicial system is stacked with Morsi’s opponents.
Tamara el-Rifai, director of advocacy and communications at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, attended the trial and said her group was concerned that Morsi was detained without access to his lawyers.
She added: “If you want to address the death of protesters, you have to hold accountable security forces, and you have to look at all incidents and who issued the orders. You can’t have selective justice.”
Security was increased across Cairo for the start of the trial, with major squares closed to traffic, but large-scale violence didn’t materialize. Only eight people were injured nationwide, and 53 Muslim Brotherhood members were arrested after clashes in the capital and other cities, officials said.
Hundreds of black-clad riot police were deployed at the police academy, backed by armored vehicles and hovering helicopters. The final stretch of road leading to the academy was sealed off, with only authorized personnel and accredited journalists allowed to approach.
The academy also was being used for the re-trial of Mubarak, who is charged with failing to stop the killing of some 900 protesters during the 18-day uprising that toppled his 29-year regime. Unlike Mubarak’s first trial, the proceedings against Morsi were not broadcast live.
Several hundred Morsi supporters rallied outside the police academy. They chanted slogans against Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the military chief who led the coup. Some in the crowd attacked journalists and lawyers for the victims in the case.
Police fired in the air to separate them from Morsi’s opponents. They also used tear gas to end clashes between the two sides at a major court complex in downtown Cairo. Police also used tear gas to disperse thousands of Morsi supporters in the southern city of Assiut.
Salma Fateen, a 40-year-old Morsi supporter, said the interim leaders are afraid to broadcast the trial live because they fear it will expose their “illegitimacy.”
“Even if they hang Morsi, we will stay on the streets to get our constitution back and our parliament back,” she said.
Ahmed Abdel-Mohsen, a 42-year-old engineer, said he was not impressed by Morsi’s insistence he was still president. “His legitimacy has come to a dead end,” he said.
Associated Press writers Maggie Michael, Tony G. Gabriel and Mariam Rizk contributed to this report.