Egypt’s criminal investigation against the ousted president, announced Friday, is likely just the start of wider legal moves against Mohammad Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood - ominous prospects for a country seething with violent divisions.
During Mursi’s three weeks in secret detention, military intelligence agents have extensively questioned him on the inner workings of his presidency and of the Brotherhood, seeking to prove he committed crimes including handing state secrets to the Islamist group, military officials told The Associated Press.
Military intelligence has had sole access to him and has questioned him at least once a day, sometimes for up to five hours, the officials said. At times they have presented him voice recordings of his conversations to question him on them, they said.
Throughout, Mursi has been denied access to television and newspapers, they said. He has been moved at least three times between Defense Ministry facilities in armored vehicles under heavy guard. He is currently in a facility outside Cairo, they said, without elaborating.
The military appears not to have decided yet what to do with the information it is gathering. But the officials said it could be used to fuel the civilian prosecution already underway, indict other Brotherhood figures or to justify a more dramatic move: renewing the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood itself.
The group was banned for decades, but became legal after Mubarak’s fall and was widely seen as the real power and decision-maker behind Mursi during his year in office. Mursi and the group denied it played any role.
“We allowed Hosni Mubarak to be put on trial and he is one of our own, so there is nothing to stop us from doing this,” said one military official familiar with the thinking of the military leadership. Mubarak was a career air force officer touted as a war hero before he became president in 1981. After his 2011 ouster, he was put on trial for complicity in killing protesters.
Since army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi removed Mursi on July 3, Egypt’s first freely elected president has been held incommunicado by the military. Six well placed military and security officials, including two in military intelligence, spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the closed-door questioning.
On Friday, civilian prosecutors announced they had launched an investigation into Mursi on charges of murder and conspiring with the Palestinian militant group Hamas. At the heart of the case are allegations that Mursi and the Brotherhood worked with Hamas to carry out an attack on a prison that broke Mursi and around 30 other members of the group out of detention during the 2011 uprising against Mubarak. The attack killed 14 inmates.
The investigation is the first step toward an indictment and possible trial on the charges, which are punishable by death. Prosecutors ordered Mursi detained for 15 days pending the completion of the investigation and security officials late Friday said he was likely to be moved shortly to a civilian, high-security prison south of Cairo.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The Brotherhood and Hamas deny the charges, calling them politically motivated. Mursi and the Brotherhood figures freed with him have said local residents attacked the Wadi el-Natroun prison to free their own relatives and that they escaped amid the chaos.
The move to prosecute Mursi shows the “bankruptcy of the leaders of the bloody coup,” Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref said in a statement. Egyptians, he added, will reject “the return of the dictatorial police state and all the repression, tyranny and theft it entails.”
But the accounts of Mursi’s interrogations suggest the military has a more ambitious aim to cripple the 85-year-old Brotherhood.
A move to ban the group again would likely bring a backlash from Islamists.
One senior Brotherhood official, Mohammed el-Beltagy, sought to belittle the significance of such a move.
“They can dissolve it if they want. They are dissolving the whole country now,” he told the AP at the site of the group’s main protest sit-in at an eastern Cairo district.
Another Brotherhood figure told AP that the group is fully aware that a new ban “cannot be ruled out.” But he warned that the result would be “a tragic phase” that would “end with el-Sisi’s fall.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because the group had not authorized him to discuss the implications of a ban.
The Brotherhood has contended that the military is aiming to crush the Islamist movement after Mursi's overthrow, a move which the group and its allies say aims to destroy Egyptian democracy. El-Sisi removed Mursi after four days of massive protests against him by millions of Egyptians.
The military’s lines of questioning appear aimed at proving the secretive Brotherhood went far beyond its legal status as a non-government organization involved solely in religious work and put itself above the law.
Military intelligence agents have interrogated Mursi extensively on his actions as president, the officials said. Among the topics are his discussions with foreign leaders during his trips abroad and his ties with Turkey and top Brotherhood ally Qatar, and with Gaza’s Hamas rulers, the officials said.
One main avenue is to determine if he gave sensitive state information to Islamist allies abroad or to the Brotherhood, they said.
Another line of questioning focuses on the deeply secretive finances of the Brotherhood and its funding channels abroad, they said.
As a sign of how enmeshed the Brotherhood was with the president, one senior military official noted an incident soon after Mursi took office on June 30, 2012. Mursi brought 19 members of the Brotherhood’s top leadership body with him for his first briefing by the then-head of the General Intelligence Agency, Maj. Gen. Murad Muwafi.
When Muwafi objected to their presence because they had no security clearance, Mursi casually told him, “Come on, general, there are no strangers here.” Muwafi went on to give the briefing but avoided sharing sensitive material, said the official, who was directly involved in contacts between the Mursi administration and the military and intelligence agencies.
Several weeks later, Mursi fired Muwafi.
The 61-year-old Mursi initially refused to answer investigators’ questions but eventually cautiously cooperated, according to a military official with access to records of the questioning.
Throughout, however, he repeatedly declared that he remains Egypt’s legitimate president, the official said. He often insisted he tirelessly served Egypt’s best interests but was thwarted by the “deep state,” the phrase used by Egyptians to refer to Mubarak loyalists and other entrenched powers in the army, security forces and state institutions.
Mursi is observing the dawn-to-sunset fast of the holy month of Ramadan and when not being questioned, he has spent his time praying and reading the Quran, Islam’s holy book. He was making a point of praying loudly, seeking God’s assistance against his “oppressors,” several officials said.
When confronted with audio recordings and documents, Mursi bristled and said his investigators should treat him with the respect a president is entitled to, said the official with access to the questioning records.
At another point, Mursi sarcastically told his interrogators that he did not see the point of them asking him questions since they had video and sound recordings of everything he did while in office, the official said.
Another area that Mursi was being interrogated about is his pardon for dozens of jailed militants who once embraced violence. The officials said the military believes many of them move to Sinai and formed jihadi cells that include foreign extremists.
In the same vein, the military investigators are questioning Mursi on his perceived attempt to stop the military from pursuing militants behind the killing nearly a year ago of 16 army troops at a remote post near the Israel and Gaza borders in Sinai.
During his presidency, Mursi’s aides said he was trying to move away from the approach of security crackdowns in Sinai to negotiations to ease discontent among the population there. Opponents accused him of protecting jihadis.
Besides Mursi, five other senior Brotherhood figures have been detained and face investigations by prosecutors on a variety of charges, including inciting violence. More than a dozen others have arrest warrants against them but have not been detained.