The second court appearance for ousted President Mohammed Morsi was very different from his first: He wore a white prison uniform Tuesday instead of a trim dark suit. And when the Islamist leader wanted to speak, a judge controlled his microphone in the soundproof glass cell.
The session was carefully managed by authorities, with state TV showing only edited excerpts, not a planned live feed, as the military-backed interim government and allied media sought to control the narrative of Egypt’s political turmoil following the Arab Spring.
An agitated Morsi paced in the courtroom cage, separated from other defendants, and raised his hands as he angrily questioned why he was in court. “Who are you? Tell me!” he shouted at the presiding judge.
Judge Shabaan el-Shami responded: “I am the head of Egypt’s criminal court!”
After five hours, the court session was adjourned until Feb. 22.
The 62-year-old former president is on trial with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and militants from the Palestinian Hamas group and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. They are charged in connection with prison breaks that freed 20,000 inmates during the 18-day uprising against Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
Three years ago, on Jan. 28, 2011, protesters battled police in Cairo with stones and firebombs, and burned down the ruling party headquarters. Crowds chased away the much-reviled police forces, torched their vehicles and burned some of their stations – forcing some police to withdraw or join the demonstrators, only to be replaced by the military.
To mark Tuesday’s anniversary, Morsi supporters briefly clashed with police in central Cairo. Separately, gunmen also killed an aide to the interior minister in a drive-by shooting outside Cairo, as well as a policeman guarding a church in a southern section of the capital. Security forces were deployed, erecting checkpoints as they braced for more trouble, but no major violence was reported.
Morsi’s appearance in court was only the second time he has been seen in public since the July 3 military coup that toppled him following mass protests of his administration. Egypt’s first freely elected president was shown in court in November on separate charges in a session that was marked by his repeated outbursts.
This time, however, Morsi was separated from other defendants in the glass cage, with a microphone controlled by the judge.
A promised live feed from the courtroom did not occur, something a senior state TV official told local media that security forces demanded.
In reports from the court, where journalists were allowed to attend but could not record or photograph, Morsi asked the judge to address him as the “president of the republic so long as I am alive or have not stepped down.” The comments were carried by the state flagship newspaper Al-Ahram, in its online version.
The newspaper said Morsi expressed respect for the judiciary but asked the court not to get involved in the politics of “the military coup.”
Michael W. Hanna, a Middle East expert from New York’s Century Foundation, said Egyptian authorities were seeking to keep a tight lid on the proceedings and control the message from the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. He added that there was a general public weariness about the trials of officials.
“They don’t want it to be a damaging spectacle. They want it to be a spectacle, just not a damaging spectacle,” he said in a telephone interview from Washington. “They don’t want this to be an opportunity for the defendants to embarrass them and turn the tables on them.”
There are 130 defendants besides Morsi, but only 19 appeared with him Tuesday. Another 111 defendants, including members of Hamas and Hezbollah, are being tried in absentia.
Prosecutors have demanded the maximum penalty for the defendants, which could mean a life sentence for Morsi. He is charged with helping foreign militant groups to enter the country from neighboring Hamas-ruled Gaza, to lead the 2011 prison breaks.
“These acts were committed with the terrorist aim of terrifying the public and spreading chaos,” a prosecutor told the court. He said Morsi and other leading Brotherhood members have plotted with foreign groups to “undermine the Egyptian state and its institutions.”
Brotherhood lawyers have said the trial appears aimed at “denigrating” Morsi and the group. Morsi already faces three other trials on various charges, some of them carrying the death penalty.
Morsi and his Brotherhood colleagues were arrested on Jan. 27, 2011, the eve of what became known as the “Friday of Rage,” and were sent to prison to undercut the protests.
Authorities say up to 800 foreign militants, including others from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, then entered Egypt to help free their own prisoners in Egyptian jails.
Two days later, in some of the still-unclear events of the uprising, there appeared to be an attempt to spread chaos when several prisons in Egypt were stormed, some by men with bulldozers.
There was a widespread belief at the time that the police freed prisoners to create the pandemonium. Rights groups have recorded a number of incidents when prison riots ended up with police killing a number of inmates to quell the mayhem. The groups have called for an independent investigation into events of the day.
Nasser Amin, a rights lawyer on the board of the National Council for Human Rights appointed by the interim authorities, said the investigation of Morsi and his allies was building long before he was ousted from office.
But Amin called the case weak, like the trials of Mubarak and other former regime officials. He said the Egyptian judicial system is not prepared to handle such political cases.
“How are they going to prove that Morsi tried to undermine the Egyptian state?” he said.