The failure of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s supporters to stage large protests at his trial reflects the dwindling power of his Muslim Brotherhood following a deadly military crackdown.
Morsi’s insistence in a Cairo court on Monday that he remains Egypt’s president, and his subsequent transfer to a prison cell, could further polarise the already deeply divided country following months of unrest.
Morsi, ousted on July 3 by the army amid massive demonstrations against his one-year rule, was put on trial Monday for incitement to murder protesters outside the presidential palace in December 2012.
His supporters had vowed massive protests but in the end only a few dozen showed up outside the courtroom and a few thousand held a brief demonstration at another location in Cairo.
“A big shift happened yesterday. First, Morsi turned from a president in custody to an inmate of Borg al-Arab prison,” said political analyst Hisham Kassem, referring to the jail on the outskirts of Alexandria where Egypt’s first democratically elected leader was transferred.
“Second, his Islamist supporters bungled. They were unable to garner large numbers and it clearly shows their movement is weakening. If the Muslim Brotherhood thought it could last for centuries, then that perception is gone. The movement is sputtering towards an end.”
The low turnout illustrated the fall from grace of a movement that for decades was Egypt’s most formidable opposition and which handily won a series of polls after the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
An August 14 assault by security forces on two protest camps killed hundreds of Morsi supporters, and since then more than 2,000 Islamists have been jailed, including most of the Brotherhood’s leadership.
Subsequent demonstrations have ignited deadly street clashes with security forces and Morsi opponents.
On Monday, a defiant Morsi rejected the court that is trying him, chanting several times from behind the bars of a caged dock that he remains “president of the republic.”
But analysts say his defiance failed to energise supporters who just a month ago staged massive demonstrations backing him.
“Fractures within the Egyptian society remain deep. The strategy of Morsi (of insisting he is the president) is hardly tenable in the long term….as it is hardly noticed beyond his movement,” said Karim Bitar of the Paris-based French Institute of International and Strategic Relations.
He said a majority of Egyptians and even world powers like the United States seem to have accepted Morsi’s overthrow.
“The American concern today seems to be that some form of a democratic process is in place (in Egypt), even if the Brotherhood is excluded,” said Bitar.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who paid his first visit to Egypt since Morsi’s ouster on the eve of the trial, made no mention of the ousted leader.
“The Muslim Brotherhood would be unable to impact the roadmap” now, said Hassan Nafea, professor of political science at Cairo University, referring to the transition plan of the military-installed authorities.
It envisages a new constitution and new parliamentary and presidential elections by the middle of 2014.
Critics point to ‘clear failure’ of Islamists
Founded in 1928, the Brotherhood has weathered previous waves of arrests, most notably under Egypt’s nationalist president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s.
After Mubarak’s overthrow in February 2011 the Brotherhood emerged as the most well-organised political movement in the country and won a series of victories at the polls, culminating in the 2012 election of Morsi.
But millions of Egyptians became disillusioned with Morsi’s turbulent one year-rule, marked by political turmoil and a crippling economic crisis.
His supporters insist he was undermined at every step by the “deep state” left over from Mubarak’s reign, while opponents accused him of trying to erect a new dictatorship run by the Brotherhood.
In November 2012, he decreed himself sweeping powers, prompting opponents to accuse him of failing the revolution that ousted Mubarak.
The following month clashes broke out when the Muslim Brotherhood moved in to disperse protesters outside the presidential palace after accusing security forces of failing to protect the president.
Several people were killed in the ensuing melee, from which the charges against Morsi stem.
And six months later, millions took to the streets to demand Morsi’s ouster and welcomed the military’s announcement that he had been removed from power and taken into custody.
“The Muslim Brotherhood …over time has lost support from the majority of the people,” said Nafea.
“It was given a chance but it failed to change itself from a secret, underground group to a real democratic component of Egypt’s national movement… and yesterday was a clear failure for the Islamists.”