Egyptian Court Accuses Morsi of Espionage and Paves the Way for Further Trouble

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Egyptian supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi build a giant portrait of him as they continue to hold a sit-in outside Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo, on July 25, 2013.

Early Friday morning, an Egyptian judge announced the detention of deposed President Mohamed Morsi for 15 days while authorities investigate charges of espionage levied against him by the transitional government. The move aborts all possibility of near-term reconciliation with Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Morsi has been held incommunicado at an undisclosed location since he was ousted by the military on July 3; his own family claims to have no knowledge of his whereabouts or access to him. Today’s ruling by investigating judge Hassan Samir is the first real attempt by Egypt’s military-backed transitional regime to give legal definition to Morsi’s detention. International pressure to either free or charge Morsi has increased steadily in recent weeks, with the German and Turkish governments, along with the European Union, calling for his release.

But the new process brings new complications. At some point, Morsi will have to appear publicly before a judge and be given access to his family; international organizations like the Red Cross will also intensify their calls for access to him, adding fuel to Brotherhood claims that Morsi is in fact a political prisoner. The move also signals a definitive end to half-hearted hopes that the transitional government and Morsi’s enraged and defiant Muslim Brotherhood could reach some sort of accord or reconciliation. Interim President Adly Mansour has repeatedly talked of welcoming the Brotherhood back into the Egyptian political family. But these extended olive branches have come alongside repeated whacks with the rod; the transitional government has presided over a deepening security crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, while charging a host of Brotherhood leaders for allegedly inciting their followers to violence and rebellion. Defense Ministry Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi called for massive public demonstrations of support for the military on Friday July 26—a move the Brotherhood claims is the final step before Al-Sissi launches a national crackdown on the Islamist group. The two sides have spent Friday holding parallel rallies around the country, with scattered reports of afternoon violence in both Cairo and Alexandria. The possibility of further hostilities looms as the evening drags on, when the crowds on both sides are expected to grow larger.

The choice of charging Morsi with espionage is a curious one—and a possible indication of the weakness of the other potential cases being built against him. The charges center around a January 30, 2011 prison break in which Morsi and dozens of other Muslim Brotherhood officials were freed—after being rounded up two days earlier in one of then President’s Hosni Mubarak’s final desperate crackdowns. In a now-famous phone call to the Al Jazeera satellite news channel, Morsi said at the time that he didn’t know the identities of the men who freed him. Since that time, rumors have circulated steadily that the Brotherhood had employed their compatriots in the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas to orchestrate the breakout. But these claims never gained any momentum until after Morsi’s ouster.

There were other mysterious prison breaks around Egypt on that same day in 2011—ahead of the revolutionary uprising that would eventually topple the autocrat Mubarak—with many being blamed on either vengeful Interior Ministry officials deliberately throwing open the gates, or ordinary citizens coming to break out their relatives. Even if the Hamas connection could somehow be proven in court, it’s unclear just how that would qualify as espionage or treason if place before an unbiased judge. Any lawyer would argue that Morsi’s arrest and detention was itself illegitimate—so how could it be illegal to defy it?

The other potential charges looming over Morsi are even more controversial. Samir’s ruling—which still doesn’t amount to formal charge sheet—suggested Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian president conducted a virtual reign of terror while in office. It accuses Morsi of “aggressive acts in the country” that include conspiring with Hamas to attack police stations and kidnap and kill Egyptian soldiers.

The fact of Morsi’s detention is less surprising than the nature of the charges themselves—branding Morsi and the Brotherhood, in essence, as traitors. It is not the sort of maneuver that a government interested in reconciling with disaffected opponents would make. Friday’s ruling, combined with the pro-military protests called for the same day, have now set the stage for a sweeping crackdown on the Brotherhood that seems likely to drive the organization back underground.

Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.