CAIRO -- Ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on Monday made his first public appearance since he was forced from office four months ago, loudly proclaiming at a court hearing that he remains the country’s duly elected leader and rejecting the criminal charges lodged against him as an effort to cover up a military coup.
“It is sad that the great Egyptian judiciary serves as a cover for the military coup,” Morsi said as he entered the courtroom, where he was greeted with applause by the 14 other defendants. All face charges of inciting violence that stem from the deaths of 10 people during clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators outside the presidential palace last December.
Morsi and the other defendants chanted “down, down, with military rule” and repeatedly disrupted the hearing, leading the judge, Ahmed Sabry Youssef, to adjourn it until Jan. 8.
The hearing, which wasn’t televised live, was at Cairo’s Police Academy, the same place where Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, was tried. A crowd of pro-Morsi demonstrators gathered outside the location, at one point besieging a van carrying a journalist. Police firing tear gas eventually dispersed the demonstrators.
Morsi, whom Egyptians had last seen during a televised speech hours before his military bodyguards took him into custody July 3, appeared healthy. He wore an open-neck light blue shirt and a dark suit.
How he was dressed had been a point of contention that delayed the hearing. The judge had ordered that the former president wear a prison uniform for the hearing. But Morsi, consistent with his insistence that he remains Egypt’s elected president, refused.
He maintained that attitude in the courtroom, as well. When the judge called his name to answer to the charges against him, Morsi loudly declared his defiance.
“I am Dr. Mohammed Morsi, the president of the republic,” he said. “The coup is a crime and treasonous. I am here by force, and I reject this trial because it is operating under an invalid constitution.”
When the judge asked Morsi whether he agreed to be represented by a lawyer who was present in the courtroom, Morsi responded. “With all due respect, this is not a court,” he said.
He continued, “This is a military coup. I am the president of the state. I am held against my will. A coup is treasonous and a crime. I am the president.”
After Morsi spoke, a fight erupted between his supporters and opponents among lawyers and journalists in the courtroom. The judge then suspended the session because of the outbursts.
The raucous nature of the hearing was hardly a surprise. Although millions of Egyptians poured into the streets last summer demanding his ouster, Morsi’s supporters have insisted since his removal from office that he remains the legitimate leader. In the months since he was detained, as many as 1,300 people – most of them members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood or supporters – have been killed in violent clashes with security forces and backers of the military’s assumption of power.
The crackdown on the Brotherhood and the criminal charges against Morsi and his 14 co-defendants, all senior Brotherhood leaders, have alarmed human rights advocates, who’ve said that Morsi’s appearance before a court is a crucial step toward reassuring his supporters that he’s well.
But the prospect of sparking more violence was clearly a concern for the military-led government, which called out 20,000 police officers and security troops to keep order and stationed tanks near key government buildings. Only a few hundred pro-Morsi demonstrators dared to venture out in front of the trial venue, illustrating the toll the government’s crackdown has taken on the Brotherhood, which could rally tens of thousands to its cause only a year ago.
Security in the courtroom was tight. Journalists permitted to attend the session weren’t allowed to bring cameras or recording devices. State television later played only brief video clips, one that showed Morsi stepping from a police van and another of him entering the courtroom to the applause of his co-defendants.
Morsi and the other defendants apparently hadn’t met the lawyers who’d represent them before the hearing Monday, but the judge said the defendants would be able to consult with their attorneys later.
“If the law is implemented correctly, he is going to be acquitted.” said Baha Abdel Rahman, a lawyer who was assigned to Morsi co-defendant Essam el-Erian, the vice chairman of the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party.
Morsi was flown by a military helicopter from the secret place where he’d been held to the Police Academy, in the eastern outskirts of the capital. After the hearing adjourned, Morsi was flown to the Bourg el-Arab prison near Alexandria, while his co-defendants were taken to a prison in the capital.
If convicted, Morsi could face the death penalty.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.