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Presidents on Trial

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This morning Mohammad Morsi went on trial in the police academy on the outskirts of Cairo where Hosni Mubarak was tried two years ago. The charges against Morsi seem even more difficult to prove than those brought against his predecessor. Morsi and 14 other Muslim Brotherhood leaders are accused of inciting and abetting violence by his supporters against protesters outside the presidential palace last December, which left seven dead. (He also faces other charges, such as conspiring with Hamas.)

Mubarak was convicted of failing to protect the 800 or more people who died during the uprising against him: his trial sidestepped the question of who actually ordered and carried out the killing. Too ill, apparently, to be kept in prison, he showed up at his trial dates reclining on a hospital gurney. He wore sunglasses and an air of being above it all. His life sentence was overturned in August. He’s currently under house arrest in a military hospital; his retrial is ongoing.

The judiciary has not done itself proud since Mubarak’s overthrow. Over the last two and a half years, police officers accused of shooting protesters have been systematically acquitted. Courts have issued a number of highly politicised rulings, not least the one dissolving the new, largely Islamist parliament last year.

Muslim Brotherhood processions headed out early this morning. There were clashes on the Corniche in Alexandria and rock-throwing outside the trial in Cairo. Elsewhere in the capital, Morsi’s supporters blocked roads and bridges. For a week, the authorities have been warning of the Brotherhood’s plans to foment chaos today, and boasting of the security measures they are taking. The trial was surrounded by more than 20,000 policemen. State television has been running a montage featuring the U-turns of Brotherhood leaders (such as their promise, early on, not to field a presidential candidate at all) and the violent acts of their supporters, intercut with a flashing message: ‘So You Won’t Forget.’

The trials of the two ousted presidents have the same atmosphere of violence and farce: chants breaking out inside the courtroom, lawyers coming to blows, enraged supporters outside attacking journalists. The chaos during Mubarak’s trial seemed to signal, perhaps intentionally, that it was all just theatricals. Less so this time. Morsi and his fellow-defendants haven’t been allowed to meet family or lawyers. Some told journalists today they have been tortured. And Morsi’s trial isn’t being televised: the government is too worried about providing him a platform. This morning he refused to wear prison garb and told the presiding judge: ‘I’m still your president.’ The trial has been adjourned till January.

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