Mohamed Morsi’s last public act as President was a brief — by his long-winded standards — 30-minute address on national television on July 2. In the prerecorded statement, he repeatedly hailed the legitimacy of government and his right to rule and warned against looming plots to usurp his authority and the electoral will of the Egyptian people.
Within 24 hours, Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian President was in army custody and hasn’t been heard from since. As Morsi enters his third week of detention, his status is becoming an increasingly uncomfortable issue as Egypt’s transitional military-backed government attempts to move on with the post-Morsi era. Foreign governments and even a few isolated secular Egyptian political leaders are starting to call for his release. Germany and Turkey have both openly dubbed Morsi’s continued detention without formal charges an illegitimate act. The U.S. also called for his release — although in much more passive language.
There are signs that the issue is gaining momentum. On July 17, Germany’s ambassador to Egypt, Michael Bock, told local reporters: “Morsi’s release is useful for the country’s redemocratization. The judiciary should rapidly determine a verdict. Is there a case against him or not?” E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood during a visit to Cairo on July 17. Ashton later told reporters, “I believe [Morsi] should be released. I was assured he is well. I would have liked to see him.”
As Morsi’s time in custody lengthens, the more likely it becomes that the man who was Egypt’s first democratically elected head of state could be deemed in international circles a political prisoner, even one of conscience — something Egypt’s nascent transitional government, which swept into power on the grounds that Morsi and his Islamist cohorts were taking the country off a cliff, should be desperate to avoid. Egypt’s prosecutors announced earlier this week a wide-ranging set of investigations against Morsi for crimes that include incitement to violence, complicity in the killing of protesters, damaging the economy and even espionage. No formal charges have been filed yet.
“Putting somebody in prison like Morsi is undoubtedly a violation of the [U.N. human-rights] covenant, and that’s why there is this frantic search to find something to accuse him of,” says Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-born law professor emeritus at DePaul University and a former U.N. human-rights investigator in Serbia and Afghanistan. “There is no doubt that he is a prisoner of conscience.”
Since Morsi’s ouster on July 3, a host of leaders from his Muslim Brotherhood organization have been charged with incitement to violence over incendiary public speeches and statements. Most of those accused leaders remain in hiding or removed from the reach of authorities as they wait surrounded by thousands of their loyalists at an open-ended sit-in outside a mosque in northeastern Cairo. But Bassiouni said Morsi’s statements in his final speeches in office simply don’t qualify as incitement to violence. However, he understands the transitional government’s logic: “The position of the government is to try and link Morsi to the announcements and actions of the other Muslim Brotherhood leaders,” he says. “When you consider them collectively like that, then that way Morsi can be considered a threat to public order and safety.”
Apart from his supporters, few inside Egypt view Morsi as a political prisoner. In the current deeply polarized national environment, anyone expressing discomfort over Morsi’s treatment or the ongoing security crackdown on other leaders of his Muslim Brotherhood is likely to be labeled a Brotherhood sympathizer.
However some local political figures have floated the idea that perhaps the deposed President should be released in order to defuse the controversy surrounding his detention. Mohammed Aboul Ghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, told the al-Arabiya satellite news channel last week that Morsi should “return home, unless he is required to face justice.”
But when contacted by TIME, Aboul Ghar offered a slightly more muddled perspective. “I don’t think just holding him as a bargaining chip is a good idea,” Aboul Ghar tells TIME. But at the same time he seemed to endorse the idea of keeping Morsi in custody until the Brotherhood accepts the country’s new political realities and abandons its campaign to return him immediately to office. “If there is an overall agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the new government regarding the Brotherhood’s status and position, then this will certainly include the release of Morsi,” he says.
In the meantime, the nation plays an ongoing guessing game as to Morsi’s exact whereabouts. The Brotherhood’s belief that he was being held at a Republican Guard base in northeastern Cairo helped turn that location into a protest flash point — one that exploded into deadly violence early on July 8 with clashes between Morsi supporters and security forces that left at least 50 Brotherhood members dead.
Egyptian-military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali has repeatedly refused to reveal Morsi’s location and recently said only that he was being kept in “a safe place” and was “being treated like a former President.” Earlier this week, Ali objected to the use of the word detained to describe Morsi’s status.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, continue in their efforts to find crimes to pin on Morsi. So far, the publicly announced investigations have partially focused on the long-simmering rumors that Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders were broken out of jail in the midst of the 2011 revolution by compatriots from the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. However that is a curious legal angle to take: any lawyer would argue that Morsi’s arrest and detention was illegitimate since it was ordered by the hated regime of deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak in one of Mubarak’s final, desperate crackdowns.
The Brotherhood — perhaps realizing that the political winds have turned against it — continues to rally international support for its cause and for Morsi’s status as a political prisoner and rightful President of Egypt. The longer he remains detained without charges, the greater the chance that those claims will be backed by foreign governments or international human-rights groups.
It’s a crisis that Aboul Ghar hopes resolves itself relatively quickly and quietly. “I don’t think it will continue for that much longer,” he says. “Once things calm down, I think [Morsi] will go home.”
Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and the author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.