The chaotic courtroom appearance of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi ended almost as soon as it began on Monday. In a makeshift hearing room at the heavily guarded police academy in Cairo, Morsi rejected the legitimacy of the court and insisted he is still president, according to Egyptian media reports. His 14 co-defendants chanted loudly.
The trial, to hear charges that Morsi and his allies incited followers to murder political opponents, was promptly adjourned until Jan. 8, 2014.
Still, this was Morsi's first appearance in public since he was ousted by the Egyptian military on July 3. A Brotherhood-led coalition telegraphed Morsi's legal strategy last week, saying in a statement: "No lawyers will be defending President Mohamed Morsi, neither Egyptians nor foreigners, because the president does not recognize the trial or any of the actions and processes that resulted from the coup."
Since the July ouster, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi and the military-backed government have rounded up the leadership of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and brutally cracked down on pro-Morsi demonstrations, killing several hundred. Morsi himself has been kept in an undisclosed prison without access to lawyers or much else.
There's a lot at stake in the trial. For the military-backed government, it's "key to showing its plan for political transition toward democracy is on track," says the Associated Press' Sarah El Deeb. "Authorities want to show the international community, sharply critical of the anti-Brotherhood crackdown, that they are justified in moving against the Islamist group by proving Morsi committed real crimes" and lost the legitimacy he earned by being popularly elected in 2012.
If that fails, the government at least hopes to signal that the crackdown has pushed the Brotherhood is "past the point of no return," the Century Foundation's Michael Wahid Hanna tells USA Today. "Brotherhood leadership is going to be criminally tried and for the near-term, there's not going to be any attempts at fostering any kind of broader reconciliation with the existing leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood."
If that's the military government's plan, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are planning to turn the trial "into an indictment of the coup, further energizing his supporters in the street," says the AP's El Deeb. The trial "will put a man who has been flipped onto his head back on his feet," says Brotherhood lawyer Mohammed el-Damati, predicting that Morsi will come out ahead at the end of the case.
Trying Morsi is risky for the military government, but it "brings the Egyptian authorities both opportunities and challenge," says Tian Dongdong at China's state-run news agency Xinhua. If the ongoing legal roller coaster of the leader Morsi replaced, Hosni Mubarak, is any indication, this won't be resolved any time soon, eating up precious financial resources. There's heightened risk of violent protests, but mostly people want stability and "any strategy, if it cannot solve the issue of economic stagnation quickly, will lose popular support and come to nothing."
Morsi's trial also heightens the precarious line the U.S. is walking in post-coup Egypt. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo on Sunday, the day before the trial, as the first stop of a nine-day tour of the region. "Kerry came to Cairo to try to put the relationship with America's ally back on track," says the BBC's Kim Ghattas. This was Kerry's first trip to Egypt since Morsi's removal, and "anti-American resentment is at an all time high with people on both sides of the political divide angry with the U.S."
Kerry said the U.S. is confident that the military government is serious about transitioning back to democratic rule, but added this not-so-subtle push: "The United States believes that the U.S.-Egypt partnership is going to be strongest when Egypt is represented by an inclusive democratically-elected civilian government based on rule of law, fundamental freedoms, and an open and competitive economy."
The U.S. cut off some big-ticket military aid, but its qualified backing of the interim government has some analysts warning that by not taking a harder line, the U.S. is discouraging the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other countries in the region from participating in the democratic process. The middle path will satisfy neither side, American University professor Akbar Ahmed tells VOA News. "Both sides are going to be critical. Both sides are going to say it is not enough. You have to choose."
So will Egypt's military-backed government. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that Morsi's trial is a big test. We won't know the results for months now.