Facing an array of charges, Mr Morsi refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court, repeatedly shouting, “I am the president of the republic”. After a rowdy two hours the trial was adjourned until January 8th.
Since the military removed Mr Morsi from office on July 3rd, he has been held in an undisclosed location with little external communication. He and his co-defendants face charges of inciting the killing of protesters who massed outside the presidential palace in December last year and demanded he call off a referendum on a new constitution drafted by his Islamist allies.
If convicted, the defendants could face the death penalty.
An estimated 20,000 security personnel were stationed around key areas in Cairo in advance of the opening day of the trial. The court location, in the New Cairo Police Academy, 25km from central Cairo, was not disclosed until Sunday and any person getting in was required to go through five security checks.
No electronic devices were permitted and police set up barriers to the public far from the entry to the sprawling compound. The courtroom was built specifically for the trial of Hosni Mubarak, the former president who was deposed in 2011 and remains under house arrest in a military hospital.
Here it was being used to try Mr Mubarak’s democratically elected successor.
Resembling a lecture hall, the room had been fitted with large ad hoc prison cells and half of it was obscured by the mesh of wire and bars. At one end, six Muslim Brotherhood members, including leading members Mohamed el-Beltagy and Essam el-Erian, waited in silence, dressed in white prison uniforms.
After journalists and lawyers filled the stands, the six suddenly began chanting in unison “Down with military rule!” and “We are not a police state!”
A female lawyer in the crowd shouted back “Execution! God willing.” Other lawyers sympathetic to the Brotherhood held up the four-finger salute that has become a sign of support for the now suppressed organisation.
Mr Morsi eventually made his way into the courtroom to applause from his Brotherhoo
d colleagues and amid chaotic scenes. Journalists and lawyers stood on their chairs, then tables, to get a better look at the man who had managed to create this visceral bifurcation in Egyptian society after only one year in power.
The deposed president, dressed in a dark blue suit and white shirt with open collar, smiled and held his hands up to the crowd, looking healthy and resolute.
The judge, Ahmed Sabry, called for calm in order to begin proceedings. But he managed to get only as far as a roll call of the defendants before being interrupted by Mr Morsi.
“This was an illegal military coup. I am Dr Mohamed Morsi and I am the legitimate president,” he began, slowly raising his voice so he could be heard over the loudspeakers, through which Judge Sabry could be heard calling for order.
“I am here against my will,” Mr Morsi continued. “I believe in the great Egyptian judiciary and I don’t want them being used as a cover for the coup.”
Eruption of noise
Once again, the courtroom erupted into noise as some lawyers chanted “Execution!” while others chanted Morsi’s name. After less than 15 minutes, Judge Sabry adjourned the court for an hour and Mr Morsi was removed from the cell and out of view.
In a statement last week, a Brotherhood legal team had also challenged the legitimacy of the charges against Mr Morsi. “We reaffirm now, that no lawyers will be defending President Mohamed Morsi . . . because the president does not recognise the trial or any of the actions and processes that resulted from the coup, such as the politicisation of the judiciary,” it said.
During the enforced break, some lawyers began holding aloft portraits of al-Hosseini Abu Deif, a journalist who was one of those killed during the clashes last December. This provoked an outbreak of shouting and scuffling that required intervention from the courtroom’s security.
Eventually, the court reassembled and charges were read out, but the defendants again challenged the legitimacy of the proceedings. Asked how he pleaded to the charges, Mr Beltagy replied simply, “This is all illegal”.
Mr Morsi had refused to have a lawyer so according to standard legal procedures, will be appointed one by the judge. The lawyers who were present pleaded with the judge to give them more time to work through the 7,000 pages of case papers.
After further disruptions the judge temporarily halted proceedings again before finally adjourning the case until January 8th, 2014. The defendants were quickly led out of their cell and state TV later reported that Mr Morsi was now being kept in Borg al-Arab prison in Alexandria, the secrecy of his whereabouts apparently no longer a priority.
Outside the courtroom, a few hundred Morsi supporters chanted in support of their president. They carried out Brotherhood legal representatives on their shoulders while chasing away the odd prosecution lawyer who made the mistake of exiting through them.
After news broke of the new trial date, mixed feelings were expressed about the meaning of this first trial. “Today doesn’t matter, it’s just paperwork, I am here to show support to my president, the only president, Mohamed Morsi,” said Ahmed, who had been at the police academy since 8am.
Mahmoud Suleiman, a manual worker from Cairo, was, however, incensed at the prolonging of this “fake trial”. Through a Morsi mask he said: “He is the president, he won elections, he got the constitution, how can he be in prison for so long? How is that possible?”
Elsewhere in Egypt, pro-Morsi protests were held in several governorates, with relatively small clashes breaking out in Cairo, Alexandria and Asyut, where pro-Morsi protesters met riot police and anti-Morsi protesters. Further protests have been called for today.