CAIRO — Egyptian authorities on Sunday moved the trial of the ousted Islamist president to a new location at another end of the capital, a move apparently aimed at thwarting mass rallies planned by the Muslim Brotherhood in his support when it opens today.
Facing charges of incitement of violence with 14 others in connection to clashes last December, Mohammed Morsi has been held at an undisclosed location since his July 3 overthrow by the military. The trial will be his first public appearance since then, possibly inflaming an already tense political atmosphere as animosity between Morsi's Islamist supporters and Egypt's security establishment steadily deepens.
"For (the Islamists) it will be like taking revenge on the police and the military," said lawyer Khaled Abu-Bakr, representing three victims of the December clashes. "I really hope that no blood is spilled tomorrow," he added.
The change of venue for the trial came on the same day that Secretary of State John Kerry met with Egyptian leaders and pressed them to stick to their "road map" for restoring democracy. He is the highest-level U.S. official to visit since the Egyptian military removed the country's first democratically elected president from power.
"The road map is being carried out to the best of our perception," Kerry said, referring to the plan by the Egyptian authorities to conduct a national referendum on an amended constitution and hold parliamentary and presidential elections by next spring.
But questions remained about the military's intentions and the degree of U.S. influence.
Kerry, who is on a Mideast swing, met with Egypt's interim president, Adly Mansour, and Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the powerful minister of defense, who spearheaded the ouster of Morsi. But el-Sissi and Mansour did not pledge that they would not extend Egypt's state of emergency when it lapses on Nov. 14, as Kerry had requested.
Kerry did not raise the issue of Morsi's trial. Instead, Kerry reaffirmed that Egypt should avoid politically motivated arrests, ensure due process for detainees and establish an inclusive government that is open to political rivals who eschew violence, State Department officials said.
The new location for the trial was announced at a tumultuous news conference by appeals court judge Medhat Idris, who threw his statement in the air and stormed out of the room when Morsi supporters shouted in protest at the change.
He later told the Associated Press by telephone that the trial will not be aired live. Other details about the proceedings, including where Morsi will be held during them, remain secret.
The new venue is a heavily fortified police academy in an eastern Cairo suburb, already used for the trial of another former president — Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in a 2011 uprising. He is accused of failing to stop the killing of protesters.
Egypt witnessed one of its worst bouts of violence in decades on Aug. 14, when security forces violently cleared protest camps set up by Morsi supporters, sparking days of unrest that left more than 1,000 dead. Since then, violent incidents have multiplied: A suicide car bomber tried to assassinate Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim in September, and dozens of members of the security forces have been killed in a string of drive-by shootings, explosions and car bombs. Churches have been torched, and in an attack in Cairo last month, five Copts and one Muslim were killed in drive-by shooting at a church.
Government officials and Morsi's supporters forecast bleak scenarios for today, with each side accusing the other of plotting killings, including that of Morsi.
A Brotherhood-led group has called for mass rallies, while the interior minister has ordered the deployment of large numbers of security forces to guard the trial.
In recent statements, a coalition led by Morsi's Brotherhood described the trial as a "farce" and reiterated that it regarded him as the "elected, legitimate president" of Egypt. "This is a naive tool to break our will and our determination," it said Sunday.
Shaimaa Awad, a member of the group's political party, said it envisages several scenarios for the day of the trial. One of them, she said, sees the authorities bringing in Morsi for a swift and a secretive session. The second scenario, she said the group fears, is that authorities exploit the protests in order to create chaos and "liquidate Morsi."
"There is real fear Morsi would be assassinated during violence, and protesters depicted as trying to break into the courtroom," she said.
"We know our presence could backfire, but we cannot simply not go," she said. "We have to be there. When you know that your president is brought in to be humiliated, you ought to be outside to show that he is not alone."
Meanwhile, a newspaper known for close ties to the military published what appeared to be the first pictures of Morsi from his detention. El-Watan published a transcript of remarks it says were made by Morsi and captured on video, describing him as being "in total denial" and saying "I am the president of the republic, in accordance to the constitution." Later in the day, it posted a video showing Morsi wearing a blue track suit, sitting on a chair and speaking calmly.
The paper quoted him as saying: "I will represent myself in front of any court. … I am not involved in killings of the protesters. … I will tell judges that."
A military official said the video was leaked to give his supporters a glance of the former president to lessen the impact of the shock of his first public appearance.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.