Parallels
12:28 am
Fri March 14, 2014

In Egypt, A New Courtroom Drama Every Day

Originally published on Fri March 14, 2014 8:27 am

Not one but two ousted presidents are on trial. In cages. As are a group of journalists from the Al Jazeera satellite channel. Then there are the countless activists facing charges that are widely seen as politically motivated.

If you like courtroom dramas, Egypt is the place to be these days. And while there's no shortage of high-profile trials, analysts say one thing hasn't changed in the three tumultuous years since the overthrow of the autocratic Hosni Mubarak: There's still no guarantee of a fair trial for the accused.

The most prominent defendants are Mubarak, who's free pending the verdict of his retrial, and his successor, Mohammed Morsi, the democratically elected Islamist who's hauled into the same courthouse every week caged in glass like a zoo exhibit.

Egypt's overburdened court system is simultaneously dealing with many more trials that are linked to the military's sweeping crackdown on activists and the Muslim Brotherhood following its ouster of Morsi last July.

Morsi's reversal of fortune has been nothing short of dramatic. The first freely elected president in Egyptian history was abruptly ousted in a military coup and held incommunicado for weeks, only to reappear in court wearing a prison jumpsuit.

He faces charges related to murder, inciting violence, spying, a prison break and insulting the judiciary. Human rights groups have sharply criticized the case, saying it is based on politics, not law.

Favoring Those In Power

Critics also say that Mubarak, corrupt policemen and beneficiaries of the past regime are largely getting off under a system that does the bidding of the people in power.

"The joke in Arabic is that the public prosecutor is not a public prosecutor, he's a private prosecutor for whoever is holding the presidency in the country," says Amr Shalakany, an associate professor of law at the American University in Cairo. "And that has been the role of the prosecutor's office certainly since the last three years, but also before the revolution."

And right now it's the military that is in control. The biggest difference between Mubarak and Morsi's cases, Shalakany says, is that with Morsi, the security services and prosecutors are quickly building cases against him as well as against Islamists, critics of the state and journalists. With Mubarak, they dragged their feet.

The images and videos that come out of the makeshift courtroom in suburban Cairo are fleeting and carefully chosen by the military-backed rulers.

In a rare clip with sound from the courtroom, Morsi appears bewildered as he looks around the prosecution cage.

"Where am I? Who are you?" he yells.

Unlike the original case against Mubarak, Morsi's hearings are not aired live and only snippets from the courtroom reach the public. The cage is present in every Egyptian courtroom and sometimes defendants have used them as a soap box.

Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri famously lectured the court during a mass trial of Islamists in 1982 and that tradition continues.

From the prosecution cage, young activists and Islamists have yelled about torture, journalists have called for their freedom and Morsi has declared that he is still the legitimate leader of Egypt.

An Overburdened System

Nathan Brown, an Egypt expert at George Washington University, says the courts are overburdened and the cases being tried reflect the widespread demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist organization.

"I think any judiciary in any country would have trouble functioning in the kind of political atmosphere that exists in Egypt right now," Brown says. "It's really kind of a panicked atmosphere, so I would compare it say to the McCarthy period here in the United States. You don't expect courts to really always be able to stand up against a public wave — in a sense what they're doing is joining that wave."

On the streets of the capital, that's evident.

Ahmed Ismail stands outside his hardware store in suburban Cairo.

"I don't care if Mubarak is released or not, I just want Morsi and his group to pay," he says.

Ismail repeated conspiracy theories that Morsi tried to sell the Suez Canal and worked with foreign forces to destroy Egypt.

But for others, the trials just mean more days of instability.

Beshoy Meseeha, a water pump importer, says it is a never-ending game as the seats of power bounce from one place to the next.

"We've gotten nothing out of these trials, the rights of the martyrs are gone," he said. "The revolution is like a ball that keeps coming and going. It is not stable. And every now and then someone new takes control and tries the people from before."

He's had enough.

"If you want to try them," Meseeha said of the former presidents, "do it in the desert, away from all of us. We don't care if it's in a glass or a metal or a stainless steel cage."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

In Egypt, there is one thing hasn't changed in the three years since leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted: There's still no guarantee of a fair trial.

The country has some pretty high-profile defendants these days. There is Mubarak himself - he's out on bail - and there's also his elected successor, former president Mohammed Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Morsi is regularly hauled from jail to court where he's exhibited in a glass cage. NPR's Leila Fadel reports that cages are part of the ritual in Egyptian courts.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: It was the kind of reversal of fortune you read about in novels: the first freely-elected president in Egyptian history is abruptly ousted in a military coup and held incommunicado for weeks, only to reappear in court wearing a prison jumpsuit in a glass-covered cage.

Former leader Mohamed Morsi faces charges related to murder, inciting violence, spying, a prison break, and insulting the judiciary. The images and videos that come out of the courtroom are carefully chosen by the military-backed rulers.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

MOHAMMED MORSI: (Shouting in foreign language)

FADEL: In a rare un-muted clip from the courtroom, Morsi appears bewildered as he looks around the prosecution cage. Where am I? Who are you? he yells.

Unlike the original case against former dictator Hosni Mubarak, Morsi's hearings are not aired live and only snippets of the courtroom drama reach the public. The cage is present in every Egyptian courtroom and sometimes defendants have used them as a soapbox. Al-Qaida leader Ayman Zawahiri famously lectured the court during a mass trial of Islamists in 1982, and that tradition continues.

Critics say the original enemies of Egypt's revolution, Mubarak, the police and beneficiaries of the past regime, are largely getting off. It is an indication of a politicized system that does the bidding of the people in power. And analysts say it's always been like this.

Amr Shalakany is an associate professor of law at the American University in Cairo.

AMR SHALAKANY: The joke in Arabic is that the public prosecutor is not a public prosecutor, he's a private prosecutor for whoever is holding the presidency in the country.

FADEL: And right now it's the military that is in control.

Nathan Brown, an Egypt expert at George Washington University, says it's not that these are kangaroo courts, it's that the cases are reflecting the widespread demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood, now deemed a terrorist organization in Egypt.

NATHAN BROWN: I think any judiciary in any country would have trouble functioning in the kind of political atmosphere that exists in Egypt right now - it's really kind of a panic atmosphere, so I would compare it, say, to the McCarthy period here in the United States. You don't expect courts to really be able to stand up against a public wave. In a sense what they're doing is joining that wave.

FADEL: On the streets of the capital, that's evident. Ahmed Ismail stands outside his hardware store in suburban Cairo.

AHMED ISMAIL: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: He says, I don't care if Mubarak is released or not. I just want Morsi and his group to pay.

But others feel the trials just mean more days of instability.

BESHOR MESEEHA: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Beshor Meseeha, a water pump importer, says it's a never-ending game as the ball of power bounces from one place to the next.

MESEEHA: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: He says someone will take control of the country for a while and arrest people and try people from the past and then someone new comes. The trials go on but the people get nothing while the economy and his business get worse.

MESEEHA: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: He says try the former leaders but off in the desert away from us so we can get on with our lives.

Meanwhile these prominent trials are only part of Egypt's overloaded court system. Away from the cameras, dozens of ordinary people are facing politically motivated charges almost every day.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.