Mohamed Morsi’s appearance in court on November 4 was a sober reminder that the former president and his Muslim Brotherhood have not completely disappeared from the Egyptian political scene. Moreover, Morsi’s assertion that he remains the legitimate president of Egypt revealed that the former president has not surrendered to the military’s political roadmap—a plan that many Egyptians grudgingly accept as a political reality. Morsi’s fate now lies in the hands of the judiciary, but that does not necessarily mean that his trial will be characterized by impartiality. During his year in office, Morsi attempted to purge Egypt’s judiciary of many judges appointed during the Mubarak era. Yet how quickly the tides have turned. The head of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), Adly Mansour, currently serves as interim president, and his fellow judges are in a position to decide the former president’s fate. These are the politics of power that preceded Morsi’s first appearance in court since his ouster in July, and the brief battle that ensued within the courtroom reflects the greater crisis of legitimacy in Egypt. 

Better Get Comfortable
Mohamed Morsi is no stranger to prison life. He served a past prison sentence during the Mubarak era because of his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. Ironically, his second prison sentence may not be altogether different than his first lock up. Many of his supporters argue that Morsi was ousted and imprisoned because he was an Islamist—an argument which suggests a continuity of state-sponsored aggression against groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. The former president’s opponents, on the other hand, believe that he incited the murder of innocent protesters and coordinated with Hamas militants to illegally escape from prison during the January 25 Revolution.

Whatever the case may be, Egyptians have sarcastically noted that their presidents serve two terms: one in the presidential palace and one in prison. Former President Hosni Mubarak served more than his fair share of terms in the presidential palace but ultimately ended up in prison. In an ironic twist of fate, Mubarak is also on trial, creating a situation in which the last two presidents of Egypt are being tried at the same time. If Mubarak’s trial is any indication of the judicial path that Morsi must navigate in order to prove his innocence, then Morsi should begin getting comfortable in his prison confines.

Yet the former President Morsi does not seem interested in proving his innocence to the court. Rather, Morsi believes that he is still the legitimate president of Egypt, and consequently he refused to acknowledge the authority of the court. He clearly articulated his stance towards the trial by stating, “I am the legitimate president of Egypt,” and “I refused to be tried by this court.” Additionally, Morsi refused to don the prisoner uniform worn by the 14 other members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were also on trial. Instead, he elected to wear a dark suit and no tie. After the trial, images of Morsi wearing white prison garb surfaced on the internet—leading many of his supporters to wear white in solidarity with the former president.

Initial reports described the trial as chaotic and even went so far as to label it a farce. Morsi’s supporters in the courtroom shouted at journalists deemed biased against the former president, while others called for Morsi’s death sentence. At the same time, the former president repeatedly asserted his legitimacy as well as the illegitimacy of the military and the court itself. The chaotic scene forced the judge to adjourn the trial until early January of 2014. These seemingly small details regarding Morsi’s behavior and the chaos within the courtroom serve to highlight the broader problems playing out in Egypt today. Among the more complex of these problems concerns the questionable legitimacy of various state institutions and political actors. This inevitably leads to the question: What exactly do you do with a former president who still believes that he is the president of Egypt?

Potential Scenarios

The trial is likely to play out in three possible scenarios. First, Morsi may receive the death penalty or a life sentence. These possibilities represent the more severe of the punishments facing the former president. Second, Morsi may receive a lighter sentence intended to symbolize guilt without pursuing severe punishment. Finally, Morsi’s trial could be deliberately dragged out in the hope that the public will eventually lose interest or a better alternative for dealing with the former president will arise.

The former president faces the death penalty or a life sentence for inciting violence that led to the deaths of peaceful protesters in front of the presidential palace in December of 2012; however, it is unlikely that  Morsi will receive either of these severe punishments for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it will be difficult to prove that Morsi is directly responsible for the deaths of the protesters. Second, and perhaps more importantly, instituting an extreme punishment would complete Morsi’s transformation into a martyr. This result could have dangerous repercussions for Egypt, and there is evidence that Morsi has already began paving the way for some form of martyrdom. When he appeared in court, Morsi flashed the four fingers which have come to symbolize Rabaa Al-Adaweya Square. This gesture symbolizes not only resistance but also remembrance for the Muslim Brotherhood members who were killed when the military stormed two Cairo squares occupied by Morsi supporters in August. The execution of another high-profile member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, motivated many Islamists to abandon political participation and adopt the more extreme forms of resistance promoted by terrorist groups. The Egyptian military should heed the advice afforded by this history lesson and avoid any excessive punishment that would lend towards martyrdom. Finally, Morsi’s proponents point out the hypocrisy of trying Morsi for protesters’ deaths when a considerable number of civilian protesters died at the hands of the military since the January 25 Revolution, and this is especially true of the storming of Nahda and Rabaa Al-Adaweya squares in August of 2013.

Another possible scenario involves the issuing of a lighter sentence combined with some form of house arrest or encouraged exile upon completion of his sentence. In addition to to being tried for the death of protesters, Morsi faces charges relating to his escape from prison during the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s regime and conspiring with Hamas. These charges serve as an opportunity to inflict a symbolic punishment without running the risk of turning Morsi into a martyr. While a lighter sentence may prevent Morsi from achieving a full-fledged martyr status, it is a far from perfect scenario. Morsi’s supporters are unlikely to accept any form of punishment and will continue to maintain his innocence. At the same time, many of Morsi’s opponents want to set a strong precedent against Islamist rule in Egypt. In this sense, a lighter sentence runs the risk of sowing more discord because it would anger Egyptians from all ends of the political spectrum.

Finally, the trial could be continually dragged out until the wider Egyptian public loses interest in the case or a better alternative for dealing with Morsi presents itself. This method of kicking the can filled with difficult decisions down the road has been a staple of Egyptian policy making for decades, and there is no reason to believe that the Egyptian military will not follow suit. In fact, it may be in the best interest of the military and the new Egyptian state to simply avoid any definite decisions regarding Morsi’s future, at least in the short term. Given the volatility of Egyptian politics, the chances are very good that other contentious issues will arise and distract attention away from Morsi’s plight. Less than two years ago, massive protests against military rule were common occurrences in the Egyptian capital. Now, many of the liberal forces that once condemned the militarization of post-revolutionary Egypt are proudly waving banners of General El-Sisi. The point of this analysis is not to judge the logic of this political realignment but rather to point towards the fickleness of political winds in Egypt as an incentive for Egyptian leaders to avoid making important decisions.

It appears some Egyptians have already moved on from Morsi and the drama surrounding his trial. Ali Aymen, a 23 year old independent journalist from Abdeen, Cairo, is much more concerned with the future president rather than with the former President Morsi. “He [Morsi] came and went in [the course of] one year. The real importance lies with whomever comes after Morsi,” explained Aymen. He refers to himself a revolutionary youth, but nevertheless he described Morsi as “a victim of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Guide.” When asked to comment on his expectations for the court’s ruling, Aymen concluded, “Morsi no longer matters for us. Whether he is proved innocent or sent to prison doesn’t really matter.”

Predicting exactly how this trial will play out is very difficult; however, it is clear that Morsi’s trial represents a dilemma for the powers that be in Egypt. The reemergence of the former president after months of seclusion in an unidentified location serves as a gentle reminder to the Egyptian public that the crisis of legitimacy in Egypt is not going to resolve itself. Moreover, the former president has not acquiesced to the military’s authority, but rather he intends to confront the military establishment and the state by invoking the spirit of resistance and the memory of the violent crackdown on Islamists in the summer of 2013. This stance by Egypt’s former president leaves the Egyptian military and the judiciary between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, inflicting a severe punishment such as the death penalty or a life sentence would facilitate Morsi’s martyrdom. On the other hand, a lighter punishment threatens to displease a broad swath of the Egyptian public who appear very polarized on the issue of Morsi’s fate. Consequently, it appears likely that the military and the judiciary will avoid any definite and lasting judicial ruling, at least in the short-term. This may buy time, but it is unlikely to produce any useful answers for Egypt’s increasingly complex problem of legitimacy.

By Robert Mogielnicki