Former president Morsi’s trial: The criminalisation of the Arab spring

The so-called “January 25th Revolution” has produced little more than a switching of the guards in the presidential palace: on July 3, 2013, following large nationwide protests against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the military forces removed Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first-ever democratically elected President, from his mandate started after 2012 elections. During his 12 months in power, Morsi was seen by many Egyptians as preoccupied with establishing political control rather than tackling the hardship of a deep socio-economic crisis that is affecting the country. For this reason, many Egyptians supported the July 3 changing of the guard in favour of then military chief – and now president – Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, believing that the military would be able to lead Egypt to a better form of democracy, or, at least, to more social stability. Unsurprisingly, the change has failed in achieving both objectives but it has merely contributed in solidifying the authoritarian control on Cairo’s institutions.

The Egyptian state has engaged in a politicised “clamp down” on the MB by firstly outlawing the group in September 2013, and by subsequently declaring it a terrorist organisation. Despite this decision was not supported by evidences of terrorist activities, the label of “terrorism” legitimises military courts as well as arbitrary detentions of suspects. Silencing of protesters, approval of draconian legislations, media shout down and sham elections are just examples of a newly closed off political space where civil liberties are curtailed rather than foregrounded. Enshrined in the latest post-revolutionary 2014 constitution, military trials for civilians have hindered Egypt on its path to democracy, militarising society. Additionally, military prosecutions have also violated several key provisions in international human rights law as, unlike civilian trials, cannot be appealed, thus de facto depriving civilians of their right to process.

The sword of Damocles on the head of Morsi

According to Amnesty International, the sweeping crackdown on dissent has put at least 34,000 persons – numeral recognised by the government’s own admission – and possibly thousands more, behind bars. Among them, there are hundreds of leaders and senior officials of the MB, government opponents and the ousted President Mohamed Morsi himself.

Morsi has spent the past three years in a high-security prison near Alexandria, on trial with an ever-increasing number of cases that will take years before announcing its final verdict. As today, Morsi have been convicted with seven different charges that encompass different actions of local and foreign policy, both prior and after his presidential mandate.

Two verdicts are related to the demonstrations that sparked in December 2012 to contest constitutional reforms promoted by MB-led government. Morsi has been accused of incitement to the use of force and violence against opponents and incitement to murder of two protesters and the journalist Al Hussein Abu Deif. The leader of the MB has been sentenced to 20 years of hard labour in April 2015 for the former, as he was found guilty of ordering unlawful detention and torture of opposition protesters during clashes with MB’s supporters outside the Ittihadiya presidential palace in Cairo. On the contrary, he was cleared of the latter charge, an accusation that could have carried the death penalty, for lack of evidences.

In parallel, the former president has been accused to have leaked state secrets to foreign powers, leading to two different allegations. Firstly, Morsi was prosecuted for a supposed collaboration with Qatar, reflecting a widespread fear of Gulf Monarchies’ intervention in local affairs through Islamist groups. Prosecutors alleged that Morsi’s aides had been paid $1m to leak documents to Qatari intelligence and the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera TV network. According to the accusations, the documents included details on weapons held by the Egyptian armed forces and their location, revealing minutiae of Cairo’s strategies on foreign and domestic policies. In June 2015, Morsi was sentenced guilty of jeopardising national security, to 25 years in prison after being convicted of leading a group established against the law – the Muslim Brotherhood itself – and a further 15 years for facilitating the leaking of classified documents to Qatar.

Similar accuses have been done in the second case, where the former president has been alleged of divulging confidential material and state secrets to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards between 2005 and 2013. The prosecutors denounced a collaboration between Morsi, the Iranian forces, Hamas and Hezbollah with the intent to carry out terrorist attacks in the country, to sow chaos and overthrow the state. According to the indictment, in 2005, the MB organized a military training-program for its members in militias’ camps run by Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in South Lebanon and the Revolutionary Guard in Iran. The returned fighter would join active jihadist cells in the Sinai Peninsula and, as part of a broader plan, would have created the national instability that led to the 2011 revolution. In the same trial, Morsi was also indicted for collusion with foreign militant factions as Hamas and Hezbollah. The prosecutors accused him of having organised a mass prison break of detained Brotherhood’s members during the 2011 uprising with the collaboration of Hamas fighters, when Morsi himself was in the prison of Wadi Natrun in the outskirts of Cairo. Appealed with other 130 defendants, Morsi was found guilty of the murder and kidnapping of guards, damaging and setting fire to prison buildings and looting the prison’s weapons depot. For both accusations of this trial, Morsi has been initially sentenced to death on May 16, 2015. Despite the verdict was confirmed on June 16 by the Grand Mufti’s assessment, the Court of Cassation overturned a death sentence and ordered a retrial.

Additionally, the former president faces trials for fraud in connection with the Muslim Brotherhood’s economic and social programme for Egypt’s recovery, called Renaissance (al-Nahda); and for insulting the judiciary, after having accused judges and the judicial system in television interviews and in public speeches. Both indictments are under-going, awaiting final verdicts.

During judicial trials, Morsi has repeatedly rejected the authority of the courts. In particular, during his first trial, he asserted from the dock that he was the victim of a “military coup”, as “I am the president of the republic, according to the constitution of the state, and I am forcibly detained“. Since then, Morsi has been forced to sit in soundproof glass cages in courtrooms, which officials say are designed to prevent him disrupting proceedings. This choice has ignited even further the protests of Morsi’s supporters who defined the trials as politically motivated attempts to give legal cover to a military coup, sustaining legal prosecution with unreliable witnesses and scant evidence. Similar denounces come from human rights activists that present Morsi’s trial as epitomic example of the deteriorating human rights’ conditions in the country, denouncing among other the modalities that have undermined Morsi’s right to prepare an adequate defence.

Prosecution of Morsi or Prosecution of Democracy?

As today, Morsi’s future seems unclear, leaving open questions on whether Egypt’s regime would follow through with such a provocative act. If the conviction will eventually stand, Morsi would become the world’s first democratically elected president to be executed since Saddam Hussein in 2006, but it will also represent the death of Egypt’s Arab Spring, a movement which planted the nascent seeds of democracy.

Despite Hosni Mubarak’s overthrown, the regime of the dictator has remained largely intact, and was able to undermine Mubarak’s elected successor from the moment of his election. The whirlwind trajectory of the events from between February 2011 and July 2013, not only led to macro-failure of Cairo’s first step of democratisation, but contributed in reinforcing the military establishment’s economic and political dominance. The main strategic blunder of the pro-change forces – whether reformists, Islamists or revolutionaries – has been the failure to protect the achievements gained in Tahrir square, which further favoured uneven balance civil-military relations. The Egyptian political actors have failed in prioritise the empowerment of democratic institutions. On the one end, the losers in the electoral rounds rushed to undemocratic alternatives in order to maintain power; on the other, the winners failed miserably to translate the revolutionary street demands into policies and legislative procedures. Both strategies left unchallenged the military, which emerged as ultimate arbiter of security and guardian of national stability.

While it is undeniable to assess that democracy’s macro ideal failed, the same cannot necessarily be said of the micro ideals. Tahrir protests led to first democratic elections and to the appointment of a President, albeit with an Islamist ideological and political bent, and it represented a small but significant steps towards a more inclusive and representative political sphere.

The failure of the Arab Spring signifies the end of this version of the Arab Spring, which does not mean that it is the end of democracy in Egypt. In a country of more than 90 million where more than 70 percent of the population are under the age of 35, change is more likely than continuity of corruption and repression of Al-Sisi’s governance. But for change to happen, Egypt’s unbalanced civil-military relations need to be addressed, a second republic can only be established after the “officer’s republic” is completely extricated and dismantled.

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