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News of overthrown president’s alleged help in 2011 attacks comes as showdown looms between Muslim Brotherhood and opponents
The overthrown Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, is under investigation for aiding Hamas attacks on Egyptian security facilities during Egypt’s 2011 revolution, state media reported on Friday, in the first official update on his status since the Islamist was forced from office and detained incommunicado by the Egyptian army on 3 July.
The news came as Egypt held its breath for a showdown on Friday between supporters of the army and Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Millions are expected to fill Egypt’s streets on Friday in support of army chief General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who asked on Wednesday for Egyptians to give him a mandate to deal with what he termed terrorism. His speech was seen by sceptics as a thinly veiled attempt to win popular support for a violent crackdown on Morsi supporters. Much of Egyptian media has spent the last month depicting the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies as terrorists. At least seven channels have suspended normal programming to encourage their audience to back Sisi.
With Sisi enjoying widespread popularity, millions are likely to heed his call on Friday by turning out across Egypt – in particular in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – to show their backing for his actions. But their demonstrations also coincide with 35 marches across the capital planned by the Muslim Brotherhood, raising the possibility of serious factional fighting. The Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohamed Badie, heightened tensions further on Thursday by claiming that Sisi’s overthrow of Morsi – following days of mass protests – was a more heinous crime than the destruction of Islam’s most sacred shrine.
According to state media, Morsi is under investigation for colluding with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, during the 2011 uprising that toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak. It is alleged that Morsi and other senior Muslim Brotherhood figures were rescued from jail during the revolution with help from Hamas, and then helped the Palestinians attack Egyptian police facilities during Mubarak’s removal. The Muslim Brotherhood says the fugitives left with the help of locals – and that Hamas had no role in the 2011 uprising.
“It’s laughable,” said Gehad al-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, reacting to the news. “It’s every crime that you would think of if you were looking at the 2011 revolution through the eyes of Hosni Mubarak. It’s retaliation from the Mubarak state.”
Haddad’s argument spoke to the belief that Morsi’s overthrow has enabled the return of Mubarak-era officials and institutions sidelined by the 2011 revolution.
The decision by Egypt’s judiciary to focus their investigations against Morsi on allegations from before his presidency began, rather than on human rights violations that occurred during the presidency itself, indicates that they may be wary of implicating state institutions such as the police, who were also complicit in the torture and killing of protesters under his tenure.
Since Morsi’s overthrow, parts of Egypt have been hit regularly by violent protests and counter-protests by those supportive and opposed to his rule. More than 200 Egyptians have already died in clashes between Morsi supporters, opponents and security forces since protests against the ex-president began in late June. Contrary to local media reports, which blame the Brotherhood almost entirely for the unrest, all sides have been party to violence – not least the state. On 8 July, police and soldiers massacred 51 pro-Morsi supporters at a rally outside a military compound in east Cairo.
In turn, Morsi’s opponents claim his armed supporters have started other fatal fights – in particular while marching provocatively through neighbourhoods south of Tahrir Square, the cradle of anti-Morsi dissent.
The fighting accompanies a surge in militancy in Sinai – long considered a hotbed of extremism – and a rise in sectarian attacks on Christians in southern Egypt.
Sisi’s callout this week is seen as an attempt to get the Brotherhood to leave the streets. Brotherhood leaders are frightened of doing so because they fear an escalation of the current crackdown against senior figures within their group, as exemplified by Friday’s charges against Morsi.
Leaving the streets without securing Morsi’s return to presidency – the Brotherhood’s core albeit perhaps delusional demand – would also cost them significant credibility among supporters.
“It means doing the thing that the Brotherhood can’t and won’t do right now – giving up their claims to legitimacy,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha centre, and an expert on political Islam.
“They’ve been telling their supporters that legitimacy is something worth dying for. They can’t just change their minds overnight.”