CAIRO (Reuters) - Three leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood go on trial in Cairo on Sunday on charges of inciting lethal violence during unrest that preceded the army’s overthrow of President Mohamed Mursi.
Mohamed Badie, the Islamist movement’s “General Guide”, and his two deputies, Khairat al-Shater and Rashad Bayoumy, will not attend the High Court session, the state news agency MENA said.
The trial signals the determination of Egypt’s new army-backed rulers to crush an organization they have portrayed as a violent, terrorist group bent on undermining the state.
The Brotherhood, which won five successive votes after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, says it is a peaceful movement unjustly targeted by the generals who ousted Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected leader, on July 3.
The military contends it was responding to the people’s will, citing vast demonstrations at the time against the rule of a man criticized for accumulating excessive power, pushing a partisan Islamist agenda and mismanaging the economy.
Mursi has been in detention in an undisclosed location since army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi deposed him.
Charges against Badie and his aides include incitement to violence and relate to an anti-Brotherhood protest outside the group’s Cairo headquarters on July 30 in which nine people were killed and 91 wounded. The 70-year-old Brotherhood leader was detained last week. Shater and Bayoumy were picked up earlier.
The trial opens only three days after Mubarak, who was arrested in April, 2011, left prison following a court order to release him. He faces a retrial on charges of complicity in the killing of protesters during the revolt against him, but judges have ruled there are no legal grounds to keep him behind bars.
The army-installed government has used its powers under a month-long state of emergency to keep Mubarak, 85, under house arrest, apparently to minimize the risk of popular anger if he had simply walked free. He is now in an upscale military hospital in a Cairo suburb.
More than 1,000 people, including about 100 soldiers and police, have died in violence across Egypt since Mursi’s overthrow, making it the bloodiest civil unrest in the republic’s 60-year history. Brotherhood supporters say the toll is much higher.
Pro-Mursi crowds staged scattered marches on what they had billed as a “Friday of Martyrs”, but the Brotherhood’s ability to mobilize huge crowds appears to have been enfeebled by the round-up of its leaders and the bloody dispersal of protest camps set up in Cairo to demand the president’s reinstatement.
Mursi’s return is not on the cards for now. The army has announced a roadmap for a return to democracy which involves overhauling the constitution adopted under Mursi last year, with parliamentary and presidential elections to follow.
Changes proposed by a government-appointed legal panel would scrap last year’s Islamic additions to the constitution and revive a Mubarak-era voting system. Islamists and liberals have expressed alarm about the suggestions.
Khaled Dawoud, a member of the liberal Dostour party, said he was worried by plans to retain articles under which journalists risk jail for “insulting the president” and newspapers can be closed for violating media laws - penalties enforced under Mursi, as well as during Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
“I want new freedoms, more freedoms and not to end up with something similar to the 1971 constitution or one worse than Mursi’s 2012 constitution,” he said.
Islamists are also up in arms, for different reasons, saying the changes amount to an assault on Egypt’s “Islamic identity”.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the roadmap and the constitutional process in a call with interim Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy on Friday, MENA reported.
The United States has voiced concern about bloodshed in Egypt since Mursi’s fall. President Barack Obama has stopped short of cutting the $1.5 billion in mostly military U.S. aid to Cairo, but has ruled out any “return to normal business”.
Editing by Louise Ireland