Foreign Relations & International Law

The Cairo Diary: Inside the Morsi Courtroom

Laura Dean
Wednesday, November 6, 2013, 12:36 AM
It’s no accident that ousted President Mohamed Morsi’s trial happened in a place called the Fifth Settlement, which was, until ten years ago, in the middle of the desert. Parts of it fit that description still. The courthouse in New Cairo is far outside the teeming avenues and alleyways of the old city, far beyond most public transportation routes that would make it easy for protesters to reach. And in any case, the roads are blocked off for kilometers around all but one entrance to the police academy.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

It’s no accident that ousted President Mohamed Morsi’s trial happened in a place called the Fifth Settlement, which was, until ten years ago, in the middle of the desert. Parts of it fit that description still. The courthouse in New Cairo is far outside the teeming avenues and alleyways of the old city, far beyond most public transportation routes that would make it easy for protesters to reach. And in any case, the roads are blocked off for kilometers around all but one entrance to the police academy. Out here, malls with shops like Burberry and Ferragamo rise out of the sand, alongside shacks whose owners eke out an existence selling sticks of gum and phone credit. At the entrance to the academy, those without a special permit remain on the outside, many of them TV cameramen and photographers who were told at the last minute that they could only carry in a notepad and pen. Meanwhile those of us who managed to wrangle permits late the night before are waved through. I'm glad that I wore comfortable shoes, as the walk is more than 10 minutes along what is normally a highway. When I arrive at the gate, the first of three searches ensues. Mobile phones and recording devices are prohibited in the courtroom. After the search, we are ushered onto a bus and a police officer asks twice, three times, if anyone has smuggled in a concealed mobile phone or camera. If so, he or she should surrender it, we are told, as there will be another search when we arrive at the court house. No one comes forward. As the bus makes its way through the academy grounds, empty boxing rings, parallel bars and tennis courts come into view where young recruits spend their days training. As promised, there is another search upon arrival. Each bag gets turned inside out. Each pen unscrewed and examined. Just for good measure, another officer rifles through our bags at the door. Inside, pairs of young men sit at the end of each row, some look threatening, others bored. When asked if they are police or army, one says, “I just came to listen.” Never mind that it’s impossible to enter without several layers of accreditation; they are the hired muscle. No one from the families of the accused is present. Eight of the fifteen charged today are behind bars and are present in the courtroom. The rest are still at large. Former President Mohamed Morsi, Essam el Arian, former Vice President of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party and member of the Guidance Bureau, and Mohamed el-Beltagi, former General Secretary of the party, are the three best known. The charges: inciting the killing of protesters at the end of 2012 during the demonstrations outside the presidential palace. The hall is small. It’s the same room in which the Mubarak trial was held, but it’s been split in half. Benches that feel like church pews slope down to where the judge is, and along the left wall is the familiar cage behind which the accused in this country sit. To my mind, the cage does little to support the notion of innocence until guilt is proven. The room smells like old cigarettes; the floor is strewn with them. A general dressed in a spotless white dress uniform sips a tiny cup of Turkish coffee on the dais. A policeman chats amiably with a journalist about how a military officer will come to power and Egypt will become more powerful than the US. Another journalist jokes, “we want to see our father, our own legitimate father,” using the word "legitimate," the rallying call of the Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi's ouster, sarcastically. A former Morsi aid shouts to the assembled lawyers and journalists that since July 5th, the former president hasn’t met with anyone. He arrived at 4am and today is the first time since his arrest that he will see his former colleagues. My Arabic teacher later quips that at the trial, the government had convened the first meeting of the Guidance Bureau since July 3. The assembled wait for several hours, journalists grumbling about how difficult it will be to see the defendants, positioned, as they are, behind the lawyers. Lawyers for the accused periodically approach the cage with four fingers raised making the sign of Rabaa---the pro-Morsi protest camp that was violently dispersed on August 14. The Brothers in the cage press their four fingers against the cage and chant Rabaa slogans in response. I am told and read later that Beltagi said that he had been tortured in prison but I couldn’t get close enough to the cage to see or hear. El Arian shouts, “we are the legitimate power because Morsi is the legitimate president.” When Morsi enters, there is pandemonium. Journalists and lawyers propel themselves in successive waves from their seats to the tops of benches and tables. "He's wearing a dark suit, and a white shirt," someone whispers. The accused chant: “down, down with military rule,” and “we’re in a state, not a military camp.” Local journalists in the crowd respond: “death penalty, God willing.” The lawyers protest when the judge does nothing in response. The Brothers: “the people support the steadfastness of the president” and, "freedom and justice, men are behind Morsi.” One female reporter from Al Akhbar changes it to “the people want the death of the president.” To a journalist from Al Ahram, the state-run paper, I say, "But they're journalists." He replies, “but they are first and last citizens.” At about ten minutes after ten, the sitting adjourns as a consequence of the chaos. A half hour later, Judge Ahmed Sabry Yousef returns and tries to ascertain that the accused are present. Morsi booms, “I am Dr. Mohamed Morsi, in this place against my will. The coup was a crime and a betrayal.” The judge tries, without success to cut him off. Beltagy: "I am the director of the office of the president of the republic." A little before eleven the judge adjourns the sitting again amid chaos. Some people hold up pictures of Husseini Abu Deif, a journalist killed in clashes outside the presidential palace in late 2012. Chants of "death penalty" grow louder. Lawyers for the accused complain that they were not given adequate access to court documents (they only received them the day before) and that their clients were mistreated in prison. The former president refuses to recognize the court, though he has a team of three lawyers who are expected to represent him eventually. Among them is Salim el Awa, who is carried out on the shoulders of pro-Morsi protesters when he leaves the courtroom later in the afternoon. Unable to proceed in an orderly fashion, the trial is adjourned until January 8th, 2014. Meanwhile, Morsi is taken to a jail in Alexandria, and the rest of the defendants are brought back to Cairo's Tora prison, where Mubarak was held for many months. I doubt they're being treated as well there as Mubarak was. At the barbed wire fence at the entrance to the court, hundreds of Brotherhood supporters chant that Morsi is the legitimate president. Women sing songs that “Egypt is Islamic, not secular” and men dance, raising four water bottles on four fingers, making the sign of the protest camps. Many come from governorates in the Delta and Upper Egypt. Abdullah Ahmed, 30, from the Delta governorate of Mansoura wears sunglasses and a fitted white button-down shirt. We are here for “success or martyrdom,” he says, “there is no third choice.” Beha Mohamed from Beheira, also in the Delta, works for the Ministry of Justice. He says anyone who uses the word “coup” at work is called a terrorist. He says he has come for his rights and those of his son, who he wants to grow up, he says, in a free country. A woman who asked to be identified only as a Muslim Egyptian shouted, “demonstrations are not terrorism,” and “the army are the ones with weapons.” When I returned to where the cars are parked, my colleague tells me that the television vans of Egyptian TV channels were attacked and one had its back and front windows broken. Many opponents of Morsi’s ouster see the media as responsible for much of the backlash against them.

Halloween in Cairo

This year, Egyptian children had the option of going as a miniature Abdel Fattah el Sisi:
Others presumably went as bearded "terrorists"
Screen Shot 2013-10-26 at 9.49.16 AM

The Uncertain Fate of Satire in Egypt

Bassem Youssef, Egypt's Jon Stewart and most beloved satirist, returned to the air on October 25 after a four-month hiatus. His first episode since Morsi's ouster sparked thunderous applause and relief from the Egyptian population, and grudging acceptance from the military. Very grudging. The day after the show aired at least four complaints were lodged against him at the public prosecutor's office for defaming the armed forces and mocking General Abdel Fattah el Sisi, who has been hailed as a hero in the months since Morsi's ouster. But the jubilation was short-lived. The following week, as everyone was hunkered down after 7pm curfew on Friday, waiting for the second episode at 9pm, their promised morsel of sanity, it didn't come. Instead, another presenter read out a statement from the channel which said that the episode "indicated that the producers and presenter insisted on violating the editorial policy of the channel." Word has it from those who attended the taping that the show took aim at Egypt's media and their biased coverage of events since Morsi's ouster, including the show's host channel, CBC. Rumors abound that the episode will soon be uploaded to youtube, but so far the Egyptian public is still waiting.

Laura Dean is a journalist reporting from the Middle East and Europe. Previously, she was the Senior Middle East Correspondent for GlobalPost, writing from Egypt and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Dean formerly worked as an election observer with with the Carter Center in Tunisia and Libya and served on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in The New Republic,, Foreign Policy, The London Review of Books blog and The Globe and Mail, among other publications. Dean grew up in Bahrain and graduated from the University of Chicago. She speaks French and Arabic.

Subscribe to Lawfare