The trial of deposed President Mohamed Morsi will almost certainly be a show trial and is of little consequence. His supporters will dismiss the legitimacy of the court and trial while his opponents will largely be looking for vengeance over his year of misrule. If Morsi falls victim to more severe convictions than those that befell deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak, it will only confirm to more neutral observers the utter lack of integrity of the judicial process.
Mubarak, who presided over Egypt as dictator-president for three decades, is out of prison and may find his previous conviction for “failing to prevent the death of protesters” overturned. At the same time his elected successor is facing an array of charges, some of which are too absurd to believe. Among the charges Morsi faces is breaking out of prison during the January 2011 uprising against Mubarak. Morsi was a political prisoner arrested during the broad sweep by Mubarak’s security apparatus at the beginning of that uprising. If Morsi is imprisoned today for breaking out of his political imprisonment during the revolution, it will be the most effective demonstration that June 30 has become a full-fledged counterrevolution and the return of the shamed military regime that has ruled Egypt in some form or other since 1952.
Indeed, “revolution” is perhaps too generous a term to describe the events of the past three years. The backbone of Egypt’s authoritarian regime since 1952 has been the officer corps of the Armed Forces. Following the January “revolution” the military ruled the country through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Eighteen months later, some power was handed to Egypt’s first elected civilian president, who barely defeated Mubarak’s former prime minister and retired air force general Ahmed Shafiq. The reality is that the coercive apparatus of the state never fully came under Morsi’s command. The intelligence agencies, police forces and military all remained largely independent and behaved according to their own preferences.
What has been revolutionary about the last three years is the transformation of people’s attitudes towards their rulers. Finally, a large section of the population feels it has the right and ability to challenge those who rule them when they believe those rulers have failed in their roles. The consequence is that the current and future government must pay much more attention to public sentiment. Ironically this can produce a greater desire to engage in censorship as a way to control that sentiment. The power of criticism is weighed more seriously than in the waning years of Mubarak’s rule.
The judicial processes facing our last two presidents will make space for us to assess the limits of the 2011 revolution in full view. It is not surprising that Mubarak escaped the series of convictions many hoped for. Mubarak’s police force was responsible for gathering the evidence against him. His prosecutors were ordered to try their former boss and the man responsible for them holding their jobs. Judges that Mubarak appointed oversaw the case and judged him according to the laws he and his regime had written. In the end the court was forced, for political reasons, to convict Mubarak of something because at the time failing to do so would have produced a destabilizing outcry that would have undermined the integrity of the SCAF-led regime, and so the crime of “failing to prevent deaths” was concocted.
On Monday, Morsi will face the exact opposite scenario. The police force that has spent decades working to repress the Muslim Brotherhood will be responsible for gathering the evidence against him. He will be tried according to the laws of a regime that has worked assiduously to block the Brotherhood from accessing power. His prosecutors will be the employees of the public prosecutor appointed by the regime that overthrew him, and the judges will be the same judges that convicted and imprisoned countless members of the Brotherhood as political prisoners under the Mubarak regime. The trial is political theater, and no one is in doubt about how the final act will end.
It cannot be denied that Morsi and the Brotherhood played a substantial role in arriving at this catastrophic point in their political history. I do not agree that this counterrevolutionary coup was inevitable and in the works from day one without the Brotherhood having any recourse available to prevent it. And I do not mean to suggest that Morsi was pursuing the goals or interests of the revolution. However, the coup that took place on July 3, in spite of its popularity, had as a central goal of its architects the re-establishment of the power of the police state and military regime. This is clear from the reports emerging of intimidation of Cabinet members seeking rapprochement with the Brotherhood, and the emphasis of the Interior Ministry and certain generals on pursuing a violent and vengeful crackdown on the Brotherhood. The January 25 uprising began as a demonstration against police brutality and today the police kill protesters with impunity. Human Rights Watch has clearly demonstrated that police have used excessive deadly force on protesters repeatedly and switch to live ammunition with little to no warning.
The sad truth is that the very nature of the Brotherhood’s structure and organizational history set it up, as much as the security apparatus, to fail and be vulnerable to such a demise. The same features that allowed the Brotherhood to survive decades of repression made it fail as a political party in a competitive political environment. Had the Brotherhood followed through with its promise to collaborate with opposition parties and build a coalition government from the outset it would have been much more difficult for the military and security apparatus to seize the state so flagrantly as they did on July 3. Had Morsi as president worked towards a consensual constitution rather than force his down the throats of the opposition and the Egyptian people he would have had far more sympathizers among Egypt’s remaining revolutionaries. Instead he declared himself above the law and deployed his thugs to attack protesters in front of the presidential palace last December, taking a number prisoner and brutalizing them inside the palace walls.
Rather than work to dismantle Egypt’s police state infrastructure he sought to co-opt it, believing he could buy off the Interior Ministry and Armed Forces by extending them privileges and raising their budgets. He even appointed an interior minister of their choosing — Mohamed Ibrahim. Why else would he survive Morsi’s overthrow?
The trouble is that the Brotherhood, much like the proverbial porcupine, was brilliantly built for survival in the face of extensive hostility but is a terrible lover. In politics, its inability to build larger political alliances exposed it to enormous vulnerabilities and allowed the military leadership to overthrow the nation’s first elected president while those who elected him applauded and many fervent advocates of democracy lined up to help.
Today we are faced with beginning anew once more. The non-Islamist (there are few words less apt to describe them than “liberal”) former opposition is pegging its hopes on the officer corps just as the Brotherhood did in 2011 and, lest we forget, 1952, believing that the military that had the power to deliver them to the seats of government will leave them to govern as they see fit. Should a conflict of interest arise it will be easier to dispatch with the National Salvation Front (NSF) than it was to remove the Brotherhood. Unlike the Brotherhood, the NSF has neither a substantial ground organization nor ideological base. The government seats it holds today are entirely thanks to the country’s real military rulers in concert with a 48-hour street demonstration the NSF did not even organize.
The only way to win power, and I do not mean the window dressing of power but the actual capacity to independently govern, is the hard tedious work of organizing on the ground. It requires the patience and perseverance of competing and failing in elections, biding the results and competing again. Neither the media magnates, such as those behind CBC, or General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi himself can empower the NSF or those of a similar ideological disposition. If the NSF’s power doesn’t come from the NSF itself, then this power is simply a temporary figment of popular imagination. If the NSF or others like them fail, they may soon find themselves standing in Morsi’s shoes on the dock, or more likely rendered a passive footnote in Egypt’s political history rather than becoming the authors of its next chapter.