Egypt's first freely elected president, Mohamed Mursi, goes on trial on Monday under a security crackdown that has devastated his Muslim Brotherhood movement and raised concerns that the army-backed government is reimposing a police state. Mursi, who was ousted by the army on July 3 after mass protests against his rule, is due to appear in court at the same Cairo police academy where autocrat Hosni Mubarak also faces trial following his own overthrow in 2011.
The popular uprising that toppled Mubarak had raised expectations that Egyptians could break the military establishment's longstanding grip on power. However, the generals are back in charge, to the dismay of Western allies who hoped Egypt's experiment with democracy would be smooth. Mursi, who has been held in secret location since his removal after only a year in office, is due to appear along with 14 other senior Muslim Brotherhood figures on charges of inciting violence.
In the most senior visit to Cairo by a U.S. official since Mursi's fall, Secretary of State John Kerry called on Sunday for a fair, transparent trial for all Egyptians. The defendants could face a life sentence or death penalty if found guilty. That would probably further inflame tensions between the Brotherhood and government, deepening the instability that has devastated investment and tourism in a country where a quarter of people live under the poverty line.
When the army ousted Mursi, it promised a political roadmap would lead to free elections. What followed was one of the harshest clampdowns on the Brotherhood, which is now struggling to survive after enduring state repression for decades.
In August, riot police backed by army snipers crushed protest camps in Cairo demanding the reinstatement of Mursi, a U.S.-trained engineer. Security officials accuse Brotherhood leaders of inciting violence and terrorism. Hundreds of the movement's members and supporters have been killed and many of its leaders jailed. The Brotherhood denies any links with violent activity. "What concerns me about this trial is that the justice system has been extremely selective and there has been almost near impunity for security services for the killing of hundreds of protesters," said Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch.
"In that kind of environment of politicised prosecutions, the likelihood for real justice is compromised." Mubarak has already been sentenced to life for complicity in the killing of protesters in the 2011 uprising, but an appeals court has ordered a retrial.
There are indications that the authorities are growing less tolerant of freedom of expression. Egypt's top television satirist was pulled off the airwaves a week after he poked fun at army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Egyptian officials admit the path to democracy has been rocky but say a proper democratic transformation will take time.
"It can't be judged on what we do today and what we do tomorrow. I promise you we will succeed in doing this, but I am sure we will stumble on the way," Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told Reuters in an interview. Islamist militants based in the Sinai Peninsula have stepped up attacks on security forces since Mursi's overthrow.
Egyptian security officials accuse Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood which runs Gaza, of supplying Sinai Islamists with arms, an accusation the Palestinian militant group denies. Brotherhood officials say they remain determined to fight for Mursi's reinstatement, although far fewer Islamists seem ready to protest during the onslaught by security forces.
"If Mursi is convicted there will be a major escalation through peaceful protests and without the use of force," said a senior Brotherhood official, who added that other Islamists may take up arms against the state. The Brotherhood accused the army of staging a coup and reversing the democratic gains made since the fall of Mubarak, who ruled with an iron fist for three decades.
But many Egyptians, who grew disillusioned with Mursi's rule, do not share their view. "The Brotherhood will continue to protest everywhere to spread chaos. These protests will not bring back Mursi or the Brotherhood to power," said Fathi Awadallah, a 50-year-old businessman in Mansoura, a city in the Nile Delta. The military says it was responding to the people's will.
Sisi, the man who toppled Mursi, has become popular. Few doubt the general, who was head of military intelligence under Mubarak, would win if he ran for president. Many liken him to Gamal Abdel Nasser, the colonel who led a coup against the monarchy in 1952, set up an army-led autocracy and rounded up thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members.
Relatives of Brotherhood detainees complain they are being held in cramped conditions and mistreated. "This Mursi trial is a farce. Who should be put on trial? Those who had power stolen from them or those who did the stealing?" asked Abdullah Mustafa who said his brother, a Brotherhood member, died shortly after being held in prison.