CAIRO — Egypt’s military-imposed government announced Friday that it had launched an investigation into toppled President Mohammed Morsi that could lead to charges of murder and espionage, stemming from Morsi’s 2011 jailbreak during the final days of former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
Amid increasing international pressure to release him, the announcement marked the first time the new government has offered a legal justification for holding Morsi, who hasn’t been seen by anyone but those guarding him since his ouster July 3. According to authorities, Morsi will be held another 15 days, pending the results of the investigation.
Meanwhile, Egyptians responded by the millions to a call from the country’s current strongman, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, to turn out in the streets to demonstrate support for the military. A huge turnout, el-Sissi said, would give the military the mandate it needed to combat “terrorism and violence.”
State television estimated that 29 million people heeded the general’s call, and while there was no way to verify that number, the huge masses evident in Cairo seemed far larger than even the anti-Morsi demonstrations that marked the anniversary of his inauguration and gave the military the justification it needed to declare his administration over.
"We are with you, el-Sissi. Morsi is not my president,” they chanted.
The Muslim Brotherhood “wants to say that this is a coup, but we went down to prove that it is not,” said Reham Yosry, 25, a graduate student at Cairo University who was among thousands in Tahrir Square, the Cairo intersection that’s become the focus of Egypt’s political ferment. “We were afraid Morsi would stay in power for three decades like Mubarak.”
The government did everything it could to encourage the massive turnout. State television displayed a logo, “Egypt against terrorism,” and aired a documentary showing Morsi’s failure during his one-year tenure as president. The usual fare of soap operas that airs after sunset during the holy month of Ramadan was canceled to encourage residents to take to the streets in support of the army.
There were also rallies by Morsi supporters, but their mood was much more somber. State television ignored them. In much of the country, the two sides tried to stay away from each other, but clashes erupted in Alexandria, killing at least five people and injuring 146.
The probe of Morsi focuses on allegations that the future president conspired with the Palestinian group Hamas on the prison escape and on attacks against police stations during the 2011 uprising, according to the investigating judge, Hassan Samir.
Until now, officials had said they were keeping Morsi at an undisclosed location for his own protection. His family members have said they have no idea where he’s being held. With the possibility now of charges, the former president might reappear for the first time at a court hearing.
The investigation comes amid heightened fears that the military intends to crack down hard on the Muslim Brotherhood, the secret organization through which Morsi had ascended to the presidency. The army and the civilian government it named have suggested that those who continue to support Morsi are terrorists who threaten the nation. Since July 3, at least 100 people have been killed in clashes between Islamists and security forces
The government already has detained several top-ranking Brotherhood members, and many lower-ranking members worry that they, too, might face charges.
The case against Morsi arises from the tumultuous days in early 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to demand Mubarak’s resignation. Morsi, who was then a top Muslim Brotherhood official, had been arrested as the military tried to squelch the protests. He was held until armed men who may have been members of Hamas stormed into the prison and freed a number of prisoners.
Morsi was transferred Friday to the same prison where Mubarak is being held.
The prison break, which was part of the lore that had sprung up around Morsi, was declared illegal by a Cairo court on June 23, the same day that el-Sissi issued his first ultimatum for Morsi to reach an accommodation with his opponents or face likely military intervention.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday that the investigation into Morsi "deeply concerned" the Obama administration. She said the administration thought it was important "that there be a process to work towards his release. Clearly, this process should respect the personal security of him and take into account the volatile political situation in Egypt."
She noted that the U.S. thinks "it is very challenging to have an inclusive process if you have a number of officials from one party arbitrarily detained."
The military and police have enjoyed a resurgence of popularity since Morsi’s ouster even though the 2011 uprising began as a call against police brutality. Many who once protested against the police now praise them.
Police officers fatally shot Soha Sayed’s husband in 2011, but she now supports an Egypt governed by the security forces she once denounced.
“El-Sissi saved Egypt from the terrorist group,” the 43-year-old said, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood. “In any institution there are corrupt people. Not all of the police are bad.”
Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Youssef reported from Washington.