The Trial of the Muslim Brotherhood

On November 4, the ousted former president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, along with 14 other members of the Muslim Brotherhood, was put on trial for incitement to murder. Twice in two hours, it was adjourned. It is the second time an Egyptian president has been put on trial in two years. However, whereas the trial of Hosni Mubarak — the longtime president of Egypt who stepped down on February 11, 2011 after mass protests — attracted few protesters, Morsi’s trial has sparked great controversy. The country is split between a majority who favors the military backed interim government and a pro-Morsi minority, with some maverick voices choosing to stand apart from both. The result of the trial is likely to entrench the polarization between Egyptians for some time to come.

Morsi’s trial is not only his trial – it is the trial of many other senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders who are in the dock with him – but it is also, in essence, the trial of the Muslim Brotherhood in post-Morsi Egypt. The authorities appeared well aware of the opportunity this provided – both for them, looking to resuscitate the Muslim Brotherhood in the popular imagination of Egyptians – but also for the Muslim Brotherhood itself, who looks to do the same, albeit in a different fashion. The contesting narratives are difficult to reconcile, if at all.

The events in contention at the trial illustrate the stark divisions at work. On December 2012, a crowd spontaneously gathered in front of the presidential palace to protest Morsi’s actions for the first time in his presidency. Morsi had issued a declaration immunizing himself from legal challenges and judicial oversight while a new constitution was being drawn. Following calls from the Muslim Brotherhood to descend upon the protesters to ‘protect the president,’ violence ensued: pro-Morsi supporters targeted the ‘thugs’ who were protesting – a characterization that Morsi himself validated. At the time, a number of different human rights organizations (who are also critical of the continued crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood) condemned the government and the Muslim Brotherhood for its treatment of the protesters, which resulted in deaths (most of whom were supporters of the MB) and abuse.

Funerals for some of those who died during the violence were held shortly thereafter at the Azhar mosque. Pro-Muslim Brotherhood attendees chanted ‘Our dead are in heaven, your’s (the opposition’s) are in hell,’; a slogan that evoked a famous battle in prophetic times. Those ‘in heaven’ are on the side of the Prophet and God while those ‘in hell’ waged a war to destroy Islam – the imagery was chilling. Nevertheless, such dangerous rhetoric, at least in terms of intensity, is now no longer simply the domain of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. The ‘war on terror’ narrative pushed forward by many government supporters has given rise to many sub-narratives that have also dehumanized those opposed to the dominant political frame – which in turn has held back calls for accountability and investigations carried out by the security forces by claiming security concerns ought to take precedence.

For the Muslim Brotherhood, this trial is political theater and a travesty of justice, with supporters of the ousted president more suitably described as the victims of that confrontation. Morsi regards himself as the ‘legitimate president,’ and does not recognize the right of the courts to try him, with his supporters somewhat bizarrely considering the trial comparable to the trial of Omar al-Mukhtar (the Libyan resistance leader against the Italian occupation in World War 2). From the point of view of the government and its supporters, this is a long overdue trial to call Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to account for the violence in front of the presidential palace.

The contesting narratives are difficult to reconcile, if at all. While public opinion polls show a steady drop of support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and a solid base of support for the military, there is no agreed upon source of information— the media in Egypt, whether under Morsi or the current regime, are generally perceived as politicized and biased. Given the perceived partisanship of recent prosecutor generals, whether under Morsi or currently, the court system also has difficulty maintaining an image as a neutral, impartial arbiter of justice.

Given the breakdown of public trust that began during Morsi’s era, it is worthwhile to consider if opponents and proponents of the Muslim Brotherhood are willing to entertain alternatives. Given the serious challenges of ensuring a transparent and non-selective process for ensuring accountability, perhaps it would be worthwhile to establish such politically relevant legal processes as part of a larger ‘transitional justice’ regime, that looked at all investigations vis-à-vis the executive over the entire transitional period, as well as Mubarak’s regime. Such a suggestion has not been met with much enthusiasm, whether under this government or Morsi’s. The interim government is satisfied that the country’s judiciary can take care of all extant issues, while the Muslim Brotherhood insists that no investigation of Morsi can have legitimacy, as he is the president and ought to be reinstated. It’s worthwhile to note that when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, it was also content to use the current system without introducing reforms.

To establish long-term stability, Egypt desperately needs reform in three sectors: the security establishment, the economy and the judiciary. Without such reform, disagreement from any section of society with the executive can easily result in violence from the state; the core issues that have brought masses of people to the street (keeping in mind around 40 percent of Egyptians exist around the poverty line) remain; and the legal apparatus’s independence will continue to be perceived as less than impervious to the executive.

However, implementing such reforms requires broad based consent – and it has never been taken seriously; regardless of who has been in power. Egypt remains locked into a binary pattern between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military backed interim government – and such binaries can be either extremely ugly, or just polarizing. Or, to put it another way, they can lead to disagreement – or to death. Hundreds of people have died in the last four months. Most of them are Morsi supporters who died at the hands of state security forces, but many non-Morsi supporters (including police officers and civilians) are also among the fatalities, and at the hands of pro-Morsi militants.

This trial, unfortunately, will be viewed as yet another episode in Egypt’s pained transition – one where buzz words like ‘legitimacy,’ ‘rule of law,’ and ‘democracy’ are used as political tools rather than expressions of commitment to the principles behind those words. There will be, undoubtedly, other cases involving the Muslim Brotherhood in the months to come – and without addressing the shortcomings of this process, it is difficult to see how the results can actually benefit Egypt’s transition, as opposed to making it even more traumatic. In the meantime, the rewriting of history, whether by the Brotherhood, or the pro-military camp, will continue. The truth, it seems, will be increasingly forgotten, and the stalwarts of the civil rights and human rights activist community in Egypt, who have recorded all these incidents well, will continue to be the only ones that both sides equally use or abuse, depending on when it suits them.