CAIRO (Reuters) - Ousted Egyptian leader Mohamed Mursi struck a defiant tone on the first day of his trial on Monday, chanting ‘Down with military rule’, and calling himself the country’s only ‘legitimate’ president.
Mursi, an Islamist who was toppled by the army in July after mass protests against him, appeared angry and interrupted the session repeatedly, prompting a judge eventually to adjourn the trial, which barely got underway, to January 8.
Opponents of Egypt’s army-backed government say the trial is part of a campaign to crush Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement and revive a police state reminiscent of Hosni Mubarak’s three- decades of autocratic rule that ended in a 2011 popular revolt.
Mursi, 62, who spent time in Mubarak’s jails before becoming Egypt’s first freely elected president after the country’s “Arab Spring” revolution, found himself behind bars again this year facing charges of inciting violence that could carry the death penalty.
It is the second time in just over two years that an overthrown president has been in court in Egypt. The trial is taking place in the same venue where Mubarak has also been facing a retrial for complicity in killing protesters.
State television aired brief footage of Mursi, the first public sighting of the president since his overthrow.
After stepping out of a white van and buttoning his jacket, he appeared in a cage in a court set up in a sprawling police academy beside other Islamist defendants, who were in white prison garb. They applauded when Mursi arrived, gave the Brotherhood’s four-fingered salute, and at times turned their backs on the court.
“This trial is illegitimate,” said Mursi, who was dressed in a dark suit and who state media said had refused to wear prison clothes. “This is a criminal military coup.”
Mursi had travelled to the heavily guarded courthouse from an undisclosed location by helicopter.
Hundreds of his supporters gathered outside the court building. One sign read “The will of the people has been raped”, a reference to the army takeover.
The now-banned Muslim Brotherhood has said it will not abandon the street protests it has staged to pressure the army to reinstate Mursi.
But a heavy security presence across the country served as a reminder of a crackdown earlier this year in which hundreds of Mursi supporters were killed and thousands more rounded up.
Trial proceedings were not aired on state television and journalists were barred from bringing their telephones into the courtroom set up in a Cairo police academy.
During his appearance, Mursi also gave the Brotherhood hand gesture to express his disgust at a raid in August on a protest camp by security forces, who shot dead more than 200 people there at the height of their action against the Islamists.
Mursi and 14 other Islamists face charges of inciting violence relating to the deaths of about a dozen people in clashes outside the presidential palace in December after Mursi enraged his opponents with a decree expanding his powers.
Mursi was later taken to Borg al-Arab prison in Alexandria.
The military establishment’s return to the forefront of power in Egypt prompted Washington to cut some military aid, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting Cairo on Sunday, expressed guarded optimism about a return to democracy.
The uprising that toppled Mubarak in 2011 had raised hopes that Egypt would embrace democracy and human rights and eventually enjoy economic prosperity.
Instead, the power struggle between the Brotherhood and the army-backed government has created more uncertainty in the U.S.-allied country of 85 million, which has a peace treaty with Israel and controls the Suez Canal, a vital global trade route.
Their confrontation has hammered tourism and investment.
The Brotherhood had won every election since Mubarak’s fall and eventually propelled Mursi into power after the Islamist movement endured repression under one dictator after another.
But millions of Egyptians who grew disillusioned with Mursi’s troubled one-year rule took to the streets this summer to demand his resignation. They accused Mursi of usurping power and mismanaging the economy, allegations he denied.
“We didn’t see as much misery in the 30 years of Mubarak as much as we saw in one year of Mursi,” said Ali, a driver who was sipping morning tea at a cafe in downtown Cairo.
“He fooled us with his year in power.”
The army, saying it was responding to the will of the people, deposed Mursi and announced a political road map it said would lead to free and fair elections.
But the promises have not reassured Western allies, who had hoped the military men’s grip on power would be broken.
Security forces have killed hundreds of Islamists and arrested thousands, including the Brotherhood’s top leaders.
Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who toppled Mursi, is very popular. Few doubt his victory if he runs for president.
The Brotherhood maintains Mursi’s removal was a coup that reversed the democratic gains made after Mubarak’s overthrow.
“It is clear that the goal of this trial as well as any action against the Muslim Brotherhood is to wipe out the group as well as any Islamist movements from political life,” said Mohamed Damaty, a volunteer defence lawyer for Mursi.
Egyptian officials admit the path to democracy has been rocky, but say a proper political transformation will take time.
Additional reporting by Hadeel al-Shalchi and Asma; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Michael Georgy and Giles Elgood