When Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected President of Egypt, was ousted by a Military Coup on 3rd July, the very faint freedoms and stability achieved after the 2011 Revolution quickly became a thing of the past.
The Islamist’s trial and removal are not only symptoms of a very quick descent into a Mubarak-like authoritarianism and repression, but they also reveal a much more significant power struggle that is embodied in these events.
President Morsi’s arrest was enforced by the Egyptian Army’s Chief General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi following four days of mass protests across the country. The popular appeals for Morsi’s resignations were based on the accusations that the Freedom and Justice Party was failing to deliver economic and social reforms, while also producing a highly controversial constitution. Another source of discontent was the claim that Morsi preferred the Muslim Brotherhood’s interests to those of the country. Declaring to be a spokesman for the people, al-Sisi seized power and installed an Interim Government that still stands today, inaugurating one of Egypt’s most gruesome eras.
Mohamed Morsi is the second Egyptian President to be put on trial in less than two years, seeming to conform to the saying that when one gets elected in Egypt they inevitably serve two terms, one in government and one in prison. The deposed President is standing more than three trials, and could potentially face the death penalty if found guilty in any of them. In the one resuming today - 8th January - Morsi is facing charges of murder and incitement to violence on protesters in December 2012, together with fourteen other Muslim Brotherhood members. The trial had been adjourned since November because of Morsi’s refusal to recognise the legitimacy of both the judiciary process and of the Interim Government, and of his claims to still be Egypt’s rightful President. However, frictions and disagreements are not limited to the courthouse, as since Morsi’s removal Egypt is experiencing one of its bloodiest outburst of violence so far.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been protesting throughout the country since Morsi’s arrest, with violence particularly escalating as the trial day approaches. The Brotherhood’s rage has resulted into the Interim Government’s violent crackdown on Islamists, which is also one of the harshest and most repressive in the history of the organisation. More than 4,000 Brotherhood members have been imprisoned since the coup, while countless others are undergoing torture or facing life sentences. As a result, daily clashes between Morsi’s supporters and al-Sisi sympathisers are fuelling sectarian divisions in the country and increasing the numbers of dead and injured. The Islamists are not the only victims of the Interim Government’s growing authoritarianism, as governmental forces are also openly targeting those protesting against it.
As authoritarianism and bloodshed grip back the country, it becomes increasingly clear that what Morsi’s trial really stands for is an unprecedented power struggle between the army-backed Interim Government and the ousted but not defeated Islamists. Both parts have something to prove and an awful lot to lose from this confrontation, of which what happens in the court is only a limited manifestation.
Morsi’s trial is that of the Brotherhood as a whole, whose reputation and global influence is now at stake. In claiming that Morsi is still Egypt’s rightful President its members are also vindicating the organisation’s dignity and historical capacity to mobilise thousands of supporters across the country. The Muslim Brotherhood also have to defend its contested capability to legitimately rule Egypt, and to earn back popular trust and support.
At the same time the Interim Government also has a lot to gain, or potentially to lose, from the handling and outcome of Morsi’s trial. In the midst of unprecedented violence and repression al-Sisi and Adly Mansour need to demonstrate that they have the political strength to pursue this highly controversial trial remaining undefeated. Similarly, the Interim government also needs to convince both Egyptians and external observers that they have enough power to rightfully handle its consequences and implication, a task they are miserably failing at right now.
Whatever happens in court today and in the following weeks will be crucial for the outcomes of this not-so-hidden power struggle. The results of this trial are about who really rules Egypt, now and in the long-term future. Perhaps the only foreseeable consequence is an increased (sectarian) schism amongst Egyptians that will be hard to overcome and will also make a potential return to stability even more challenging and unlikely. To conclude, these unfortunate circumstances also make us wonder what has been of the ideals praised during the 2011 Revolution and only partially achieved at a very harsh price, while the return to a Mubarak-like era inevitably looms over the horizon.
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