The criminal charges that Egypt’s state prosecutors have filed against the country’s ousted president, Mohammed Morsi, are so flimsy as to be almost comical. It should be obvious that Egypt’s military, which overthrew the democratically elected president, and its allies in the judiciary are grasping at straws to try to justify their continued detention of Morsi.
Although the allegations haven’t been fully spelled out, Morsi is accused of conspiring with the militant group Hamas to break out of prison in the chaotic final days of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011, killing a number of guards. He is also accused of “spying,” a charge that seems to relate to communications with US ambassador Anne Patterson. That makes Morsi perhaps the only person ever to be accused of conspiring with both the United States and Hamas, which is on the US terrorist list.
The prison break allegedly occurred after Morsi and other leaders of his Muslim Brotherhood movement were held without charges in January 2011, after demonstrations against Mubarak began in Tahrir Square. Days later, Morsi and his fellow prisoners walked free. Morsi told Al Jazeera television that he and about 30 other Brotherhood members were released by people they did not know; after he walked out, he said, he found the courtyard empty and all the guards gone. The escape came at a time when law and order was breaking down across the country.
Even if investigators do indeed present credible evidence that Morsi engineered a violent escape with the help of Hamas, they still must answer the question: Why bring charges now? The investigation began while Morsi was still in office, but wasn’t assigned to a prosecutor until he was deposed. “The fact that public prosecutor has taken this up is clearly an attempt to change his illegal detention into a legal one,” said Nathan Brown, a specialist on Egypt’s legal system at George Washington University.
But putting former presidents on trial for politically motivated charges undermines the cause of democracy. Candidates for office shouldn’t have to fear prosecution after falling out of favor. Egypt seems headed down the path of Pakistan, where nearly every democratically elected leader who has left power has ended up in exile or jail. That encourages leaders to cling to power as long as they can.
Even Egyptians and foreigners who deplore the Muslim Brotherhood should take a stance against this prosecution. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN official who was appointed by Egypt’s military rulers as acting vice president, has not spoken out forcefully against this kangaroo court. This is a mistake. ElBaradei should remember that he, too, may one day find himself on the wrong side of the military. If Egypt’s revolution is to succeed, people must stand up for the rule of law, no matter who is in the dock.