Defiant Mohammed Morsi rattles Egyptian court

Trial of Egypt's former president begins; 'The coup is treason,' he says

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CAIRO -- Egypt's former President Mohammed Morsi went on trial Monday and said his overthrow was a military coup and he remains the country's legitimate leader.

"The coup is treason," Mr. Morsi, 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 Mr. Morsi 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 ouster of Mr. Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected civilian leader. Since the overthrow, Egypt's government has killed more than 1,000 Morsi supporters and imprisoned thousands more, including some of the Muslim Brotherhood's longtime lawyers. Rights groups say it is the fiercest security crackdown on a political group in Egypt in decades.

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.

If convicted, Mr. Morsi could face the death penalty, according to state-run newspaper Al-Ahram.

Mr. Morsi's predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, who was forced from power in 2011, is being re-tried at the same venue. It is the first time in Egyptian history that two former presidents are on trial concurrently. Rights activists and lawyers say there is a stark contrast between the military-backed government's swift prosecution of Mr. Morsi and his supporters and the slow pace of justice for Mr. Mubarak and members of his regime, who are accused of running a corrupt and abusive police state for three decades.

In contrast to Mr. Mubarak, who was wheeled into his first hearing on a hospital bed and spoke little in court, Mr. Morsi 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.

"Morsi 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 Mr. Morsi's supporters saluted "the steadfastness of the president."

Egypt's army and the interim government it supports are "counting on Morsi'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.

Mr. Morsi was originally supposed to be tried at Cairo's notorious Tora Prison. But officials said Sunday that the proceedings were being moved to the police academy, a compound ringed by high walls and concertina wire. Mr. Morsi's supporters said the shift, away from a cluster of neighborhoods where Morsi still commands wide popularity, made it more difficult for protesters to demonstrate in force.

The Muslim Brotherhood-led Anti-Coup Alliance had called for mass protests Monday to mark the opening of the trial, and by midday clashes had broken out in downtown Cairo between protesters and Egyptian security forces firing tear gas. The military cordoned off Cairo's Tahrir Square with troops and armored vehicles to prevent protesters from using the space.

But thousands of anti-coup protesters gathered outside Cairo's constitutional court, scrawling anti-military slogans across its walls. And clashes erupted between protesters and police firing tear gas in Alexandria and in downtown Cairo.

Participants said the turnout nationwide was small, reflecting the mounting challenges facing the anti-ouster movement, which has been decapitated by large-scale arrests, close monitoring and a campaign of intimidation by security forces.

"It has gotten much more difficult because anyone who wants to oppose the current regime gets taken [by security] immediately," said Soad Mohamed, a university student who stood amongst the protesters as they chanted, "Down with military rule."

The interim government has pledged to hold elections next year. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited Cairo Sunday, 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 Mr. Morsi.

The charges against Mr. Morsi 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."

"Morsi killed innocent people, silenced the voice of opposition just like any dictator," said the architect, who said she had voted for him.

Mr. Morsi'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."

The Washington Post contributed.


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