Morsi trial is latest chapter in Egypt's power struggle

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Cairo

image captionDemonstrators faced riot officers outside the hearing at the Police Academy

In Egypt, the trial of Mohammed Morsi is also a trial of strength pitting the military-backed authorities against the Islamist president they ousted in the summer.

The main charge - of responsibility for the deaths of protesters during his time in office - is something of a secondary issue. This is about who rules Egypt, now and in the future.

The Muslim Brotherhood, cowed but not defeated by the violent crackdown on dissent over the last few months, will be desperate to show that it still has the capacity to bring its people onto the streets.

The new government will be equally keen to show that it has the political will - and the grip on power - to go ahead with a trial, which will be intensely controversial.

It took all the obvious steps to ensure that Morsi supporters would find it difficult to use the trial as a trigger for renewed demonstrations.

Seize the moment

The proceedings were not televised, to deprive the ousted president of any opportunity to grandstand for a live nationwide audience.

And to keep the crowds away, they were conducted more than an hour's drive from the centre of the Egyptian capital at the high-walled campus of the national Police Academy out beyond the dusty ring-road.

Mr Morsi did what he could to seize the moment.

His supporters updated their Facebook pages as the proceedings unfolded to claim that he had caused a delay by refusing to wear prison clothing.

image captionProtesters outside the hearing were passionate but largely peaceful

And they claimed there was a temporary adjournment when he told the judge: "I am your president. You have no legitimacy."

At that point we were told the other Islamists charged alongside him began chanting "Down with the military".

Displaying defiance

If that is an accurate reflection of how the proceedings went, it shows that Mr Morsi understands the importance of using this hearing as a platform to rally the beleaguered supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been out-manoeuvred by the Egyptian army in recent months.

A small number of demonstrators did make their way out to the Police Academy for the hearing - one of them angrily told a group of policemen on security duty outside the compound that they too would one day find themselves on trial.

The demonstrators were few in number but they were passionate and angry.

When they overheard a reporter from a pro-government television station broadcasting live from their midst, they chased him and his team away.

A hail of rocks followed the satellite truck as it fled with the cameraman still filming from a precarious platform on the top.

The crowd, though, was largely peaceful.

Among them we found Ahmad, a 37-year-old pharmacist, who told us it was wrong to see Egypt's current crisis as a straightforward clash between the military authorities and political Islam.

He voted for Mohammed Morsi but told us: "This is not about the return of Morsi. This is about the return of freedom in Egypt.

"We want to know when we can have our voices and our freedom back. I don't know why they won't tell me that."

Chaotic days

The truth is, though, that a power struggle between the army and the Islamists is under way in Egypt, and the Morsi trial is merely the latest chapter in it.

Very few Egyptians ever expect to see him back in office, whatever the outcome of the court proceedings.

His supporters will feel that by displaying defiance and by insisting that he remains Egypt's rightful president he will have preserved some dignity at a humiliating moment and reminded the wider world that the Brotherhood in Egypt has not gone away.

image captionSupporters of Mohammed Morsi still staged rallies in the capital

There were protests in central Cairo but the military authorities will be quietly pleased if the day passes without major confrontations and widespread violence.

All in all though, these are chaotic days in Egypt.

It says a good deal about the breakneck pace of change here that the trial of one ousted president - Mr Morsi - is beginning before the trial of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak on similar charges has been completed.

Egyptians tell a joke which sums it up.

When you get elected here, they tell you, you serve two terms.

One in the presidential palace, then one in prison.

Mr Mubarak has already been released from prison - although he still faces a retrial. Mr Morsi, who replaced Mr Mubarak in the presidential palace, will now be hoping he doesn't replace him in jail after his trial is finally over.