By Peter Hessler
On my way to Monday’s trial of Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected President of Egypt, and the second former President to be tried on criminal charges during the past two years, I found myself walking next to one of Morsi’s lawyers. His name was Said Hamid, and he was sweating and breathing hard. We were still in the early stages of the security gauntlet that had been set up for the trial. Any journalist or lawyer had to carry a stamped statement of approval from the Cairo Court of Appeals, and then he had to pass through four armed checkpoints and three metal detectors. Nobody was allowed to carry a camera, voice recorder, or cell phone; the state seemed determined to control all digital recordings of this event. Each attendee also had to hike for more than half a mile up a steep hill to the police academy in eastern Cairo, and this was the part that gave Hamid trouble. He was a heavyset man in a gray suit and a black robe, and he was wheezing when I pulled up alongside him. Ahead, other black-robed lawyers made a bedraggled line up the hill, trudging along like crows with clipped wings.
Hamid told me that he was on Morsi’s defense team, and he said that he was optimistic because he believed the charges had been trumped up. “Morsi is being charged for reasons that are political, not legal,” he said. Ever since July 3rd, when Morsi was removed from office, he had been held virtually incommunicado at an undisclosed location. Monday was expected to be his first public appearance since the coup. I asked Hamid if he had been allowed to meet with Morsi before the trial. “No,” he said, “we haven’t been able to consult with him.”
Along with fourteen others, Morsi was being charged with murder and other crimes in connection with events that took place last December. At the time, a committee dominated by Islamists was trying to complete a new constitution. In an attempt to neutralize the opposition, Morsi issued a Presidential declaration that temporarily granted him power beyond the reach of any court. Protestors gathered at the Presidential Palace, and, on December 5th, Morsi supporters forcibly cleared a peaceful sit-in, kicking off a night of escalating violence that eventually resulted in ten deaths and more than seven hundred people injured. “They don’t have a strong case against Morsi,” Hamid told me. “There’s no evidence.”
I asked Hamid if he was a member of the Brotherhood. “Not at all,” he said, smiling. “Actually, I’m a Nasserite. But people don’t always understand what that means. People now say that Sisi”-General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the leader of the armed forces-“is like Gamal Abdel Nasser. That’s a lie; Sisi is nothing like Nasser. Look at everything that Nasser did-he built the Aswan Dam, he took control of the Suez Canal, he built factories. What has Sisi done? The only thing he’s done is kill Egyptians.” He was referring to what had happened in August, when security forces brutally broke up two pro-Morsi sit-ins and suppressed other protests, killing more than a thousand people.
It’s unusual for a Nasserite to sympathize with any aspect of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nasser himself tried to crush the organization, back in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, and his socialist ideas were directly opposed to the Brothers’ economic theories, which are capitalist. Hamid told me that he remains a socialist, but he stands with Morsi on principle. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “He should still be President.”
While we walked, I asked for his opinion about other prominent Egyptian political figures. Hamid’s answers were curt-maybe because he was breathing hard, or maybe because Egyptian political opinions tend to be unequivocal. “Sisi’s a criminal,” Hamid said.
“What about Sadat?”
“He was zeki,” he grunted. “Clever.”
At the top of the hill, as we approached the next checkpoint, I asked Hamid if he was religious.
“Not very,” he said with a smile. “Some days I pray, and some days I don’t.”
There were separate checkpoints for lawyers and journalists, so we shook hands and parted. I stood in line near a high brick wall marked with spray-painted slogans. They had a timeless quality, like so much Cairo graffiti. Since the revolution began, the political cycles have moved so fast that no opinion seems either totally current or totally obsolete. When had these lines been painted? Maybe last year, maybe this morning, maybe a year from now:
“MUBARAK WILL RETURN”
“MUBARAK IS INNOCENT”
“I LOVE YOU, MUBARAK”
* * *
Morsi was being tried in the same chamber that had hosted Mubarak’s court case, which began in August of 2011. It was a long room outfitted mostly in wood; the walls were panelled and the floor descended steeply to a low stage. The floorboards were scuffed and worn; the audience sat on rough benches with attached writing surfaces, like students at a decrepit college. There were none of the usual markings of a court of law. Nobody had hung a flag, or painted a symbol, or posted a sign. It was as if the authorities had dispensed with such abstract representations of justice because the real thing-the tangible, functional tools of state control-were so obvious. On the left side of the chamber, a pair of heavy black metal cages waited for the defendants. About a hundred security officers had been posted throughout the room. Some wore uniforms but most were plainclothes, with gradations of dress and professionalism that seemed to deteriorate as you moved toward the back of the court. At the very front, a row of large men in suits and ties stood between the judge’s bench and the audience. Lines of officers had been posted along the sides of the room; these men wore neat button-down shirts but no ties. And at the very back, a group of young and poorly dressed agents slouched on benches, like kids waiting to doze off once a lecture begins.
The first defendants appeared around ten o’clock in the morning. They included Essam el-Erian and Mohamed el-Beltagy, two prominent members of the Brotherhood, and they were escorted into the cage on the far-left side of the chamber. They wore white Egyptian prison garb, and they began chanting the moment they appeared: “Down, down with military rule! Down, down with military rule!” In the spectators’ section, the Brotherhood lawyers and other supporters picked up the chant, and then a female journalist behind them-young and fierce-eyed, and wearing a head scarf-screamed out: “Death penalty, insha’allah! Death penalty!”
When Morsi finally arrived, a little before ten-thirty, the room erupted. People leaped atop benches, pushing to get a glimpse of the deposed President. He was separated from the audience by two sections of metal caging and about thirty feet, but even so he was immediately recognizable. He had refused the prison whites; he wore a light-colored shirt and a dark jacket. He held himself erect and slightly apart from the other accused men, and he waved to his supporters. They erupted in a soccer-style chant that had been common during the days of his campaign: “Morsi-i-i-i-i-i! Morsi, Morsi!” When the courtroom finally quieted, Morsi’s voice rang out: he shouted out that he was the legitimate President who had been removed by an unlawful coup. A number of journalists responded by chanting: “E’adam, e’adam! Death penalty, death penalty!”
This was more than just a chant. The Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, whose membership includes people from both the state-owned and the private press, had appointed a lawyer who stood before the court on Monday and requested that Morsi and the other defendants be sentenced to death. Last December, El-Husseini Abu-Deif, a thirty-three-year-old writer at the newspaper El-Fegr, had been killed while reporting on the protests. The Brotherhood had claimed that he was the victim of thugs who had nothing to do with their organization, but the death was one of several incidents that helped to turn even moderate journalists against the Islamists. In Monday’s court, there was little pretense of press neutrality-writers often stopped taking notes and stood up to shout. The chants went back and forth while the judge, Ahmed Sabry Yousseff, tried to call for order. He didn’t have a gavel; he banged on the bench with the flat of his hand. At last, he called for a recess, and Morsi and the others were escorted out of the cage. But arguments continued in the audience until a young woman journalist began fighting with a man from the Brotherhood’s legal team. Each of them took off a shoe and brandished it; at that point, the police moved in, separating the scrum and standing on benches until everybody calmed down.
* * *
During the recess, two Egyptian journalists next to me talked about the last time they’d seen a former President in a cage.
“I was here when Mubarak appeared in court,” one of them said. He was standing with his arms crossed, looking disgusted. “He didn’t behave like this.”
“Mubarak was polite,” his colleague said.
“There wasn’t all of this shouting, not from the President.”
One of the men wrote for Al-Watan and Al-Masry al-Youm, two private papers with a secular slant. I asked if he believed that Sisi would run for President. “I think so,” he said. “I hope he runs. We need Sisi at this time. He’s a strong man, and he made the right decision at the right time. He’s smart.” He gestured at the empty cage: “Smarter than this donkey.”
Nearby, a Chinese journalist in his twenties sat rubbing his leg; somebody had slammed him into a bench during the scuffle. He told me that he had found a seat in the middle of the chamber because he figured that if a terrorist bomb went off it would most likely be at one of the entrances. He worked for the Chinese state press. “This is totally chaotic,” he said. “How can you tell who’s who? In China, they’d have a sign for the prosecutor, for the defendant, for the lawyers.” This was true-there had been no effort to separate the various groups, which was one reason why the place was so volatile. Defense lawyers were intermingled with prosecutors; Brotherhood supporters sat next to syndicate advocates; journalists found spots wherever they could.
Just past noon, the proceedings finally resumed, but it wasn’t long before Morsi interrupted. “I want a microphone!” he shouted. “I want a microphone, so I can say something to you! This is not a court, with all due respect to the members, this is not a court that can try the President of the republic! To try a President, this is a military coup! I am a representative of the state!” He yelled out that he was the President, and that he was being held against his will: “The coup is a treason and a crime! The coup is a treason and a crime!” The chamber erupted once more, and there was another fracas near the front; the judge slapped his hand uselessly on the bench. The Chinese journalist leaned over and said, “In China, something like this would never be public.”
* * *
At last, the court was adjourned, and the judge announced that the next session would be held on January 8th. While the chamber was emptying, I spoke with Ragia Omran, a human-rights lawyer who had helped file one of the cases against Morsi. She was the coördinator of an organization called the Front for the Defense of Egypt’s Protestors.
“This is not a case that was organized since the thirtieth of June,” she said, referring to the nationwide protests that led to the anti-Morsi coup. “We submitted our first complaint on the evening of December 5th. We accused Morsi and Beltagy and others of being involved in the torture of civilians.” Omran and other lawyers and activists had documented forty-nine cases in which citizens had been held, interrogated, and tortured by Brotherhood supporters, who had been trying to prove that protestors had been paid to stir up trouble. A number of victims had testified that high-ranking Brothers had known about and helped to direct the detentions. “Morsi gave a speech on the sixth of December, in the evening, while the interrogations were still going on,” Omran told me. “He said that these people had confessed. We were in the prosecutors’ office at that time, trying to deal with the situation, and the family members of detainees went crazy, because Morsi said that they had admitted guilt.” The following day, the prosecutor announced that none of the detainees were being charged, a direct contradiction of Morsi’s speech. It was probably the most important event of his brief Presidency, and perhaps the biggest factor in his downfall.
All of this makes the current legal situation far more complicated. To the outside world, it seems obvious that the military is holding a show trial, but, in fact, many of the charges and evidence come from independent groups, ranging from the Journalists Syndicate to highly respected human-rights activists like Ragia Omran. In July, Omran was named this year’s recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award; the citation specifically mentioned her work on behalf of people who had been illegally detained. But even the most careful and responsible legal activity is at risk of being overwhelmed by the current chaotic and vindictive climate in Egypt. And events have escalated in such a way that it’s easy to forget something that happened last December. There was no legal basis for Morsi’s removal from office, and since then the treatment of Islamist demonstrators has been far more brutal than anything that occurred during the palace protests.
Omran said that she is working with other lawyers on cases involving the current regime, too. “Nothing has been filed yet, but we are following up with people who have come to us since the thirtieth of June,” she said. “The Muslim Brotherhood refused to allow us to interview their people who were detained, so we could not collect evidence. But there are some people, who were not Muslim Brotherhood members, who have come to us.”
So where does it end? Since the revolution toppled Mubarak, there’s never been a sense of transitional justice and a clear path toward a more open society; instead, the nation lurches through cycles of vengeance. Omran told me that she believed the new constitution would be an improvement over last year’s document, but her hopes were tempered. “I think we will have two or three more in our lifetime,” she said.
I asked if she thought that Sisi would run for President. “I don’t think the Army wants to be in politics,” she said. “I think they learned from the last time, when the Supreme Council of Armed Forces was in power. I hope they learned.”
We had left the makeshift court, and now we boarded a bus that would take us to the exit of the police academy. Omran and other human-rights lawyers sat in the back, where they passed around a bottle of hand sanitizer. “We touched a lot of things in that court,” she said with a laugh, rubbing her hands.
* * *
The next day, I contacted Said Hamid, the lawyer on Morsi’s team, through a translator. Hamid remained optimistic. He said that the authorities had told them that from now on they would be able to meet with Morsi, who had been sent to the Borg Al-Arab prison, near Alexandria. It was the first time since early July that Morsi’s whereabouts had been made public. Hamid said that on Monday the lawyers had finally been allowed to talk with the former President, who told them a story about the preparations for the case. “The prosecutors who came to interrogate me had been blindfolded,” Morsi reportedly told his lawyers. “I asked them, ‘Do you know where you are?’ They said, ‘No, we were blindfolded and driven here.’ ” According to Hamid, Morsi had said, “This was an insult to the judiciary and to the state of Egypt.”
When I asked how Morsi seemed at the meeting, Hamid said that in fact he had to rely on the reports of his colleagues. After all these months, all the security hassles, and all the delays in court, the authorities had finally announced that the lawyers could have a brief meeting with their client, but at that precise moment Hamid was not in the chamber. He had just stepped outside to get a sandwich.