Mohamed Morsi, deposed as president by the Egyptian military on July 3, is in good health, a trickle of visitors allowed access to him and his aides in recent days has revealed. Where he is, however, remains a mystery that has enraged his family and supporters, and aggravated Egypt’s crisis.
The most recent person to visit him, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, was not blindfolded on Monday when she was taken to him, aides said. But she was flown by helicopter in the dark of night on the condition that she not reveal anything about Mr. Morsi’s whereabouts.
A previous group of visitors, Egyptian human rights activists, described having to hand over their cellphones on Friday before boarding a helicopter that circled for 15 minutes in what appeared to be an effort to disorient them.
“I think it might be a military camp outside Cairo or on the outskirts of Cairo, especially because when we landed, a car that belongs to the armed forces took us and wandered around the area for 10 minutes,” one of the activists, Nasser Amin, told Al Masry Al Youm, an Egyptian newspaper.
The military insists that its extreme caution comes from concern for Mr. Morsi’s safety, though it is probably more worried that his supporters would seize even the vaguest information on his location to create a new focus for their rallies — particularly after two bloody crackdowns on their protests.
When Mr. Morsi’s supporters thought that he was being held in the Republican Guard House in Cairo, they turned out there en masse. Security forces opened fire on them, killing more than 60 people in one of two mass killings by the security services in the past month.
Last week, prosecutors ordered Mr. Morsi’s formal detention for 15 days pending an investigation into charges related to his escape from prison during the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. The charges were part of an intensifying crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that has resulted in arrest warrants or detention of Islamist leaders.
But Mr. Morsi remains in legal and physical limbo. The military has so far refused to treat him like a criminal suspect and put him in prison, where he might receive visitors and legal advice. And his detention has emerged as a major obstacle to resolving the crisis, according to mediators. Brotherhood leaders and foreign diplomats have repeatedly pressed for Mr. Morsi’s release as a good-will gesture that might move negotiations forward.
Besides meeting with Mr. Morsi, Ms. Ashton spoke with the interim president, Adli Mansour; his vice president, Mohamed ElBaradei; and the defense minister, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, as well as those Muslim Brotherhood leaders who have not been arrested. The meetings came as Egypt’s new leaders widened their crackdown on the Islamists. The Ministry of Justice announced Tuesday that it was investigating judges and prosecutors suspected of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, as part of an intensifying effort to remove the remnants of Mr. Morsi’s leadership.
The interest in Ms. Ashton’s visit, which yielded no immediate breakthroughs except the news about Mr. Morsi, reflected the depth of Egypt’s predicament, with the Brotherhood and the military both firmly refusing to yield.
Mr. Morsi’s supporters cautiously welcomed a bit of news about the ousted leader’s well-being, but said the choice of visitors deepened their conviction that the military rulers were more concerned with stanching criticism overseas than reconciling with the Islamists.
“With all due respect to Ms. Ashton, it’s a shame that the first person to see him is a foreigner,” said Amr Darrag, a senior leader in the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. “All these Egyptians are not allowed to see him, or even talk to him on the phone. They care about their international image, much more than their own people.”
Another Brotherhood leader said the group had received word that another delegation would be allowed to visit him soon, but it was also made up of foreigners.
For now, though, Mr. Morsi remains incommunicado, cut off from both family members and supporters. Ms. Ashton said he was informed of the developments occurring in Egypt through access to television and newspapers. But Mr. Amin said they were both state television channels, which have embraced the military’s perspective since Mr. Morsi’s ouster, leaving him with a skewed version of the events.
There are indications that even Mr. Morsi is uncertain where he is being held. When the human rights activists reached one of the aides staying with him — Mr. Morsi remained in the next room — the aide is said to have asked, “So where are we?”
Military officials who spoke to The Associated Press last week said Mr. Morsi had been moved at least three times since his detention, under heavy guard in armored vehicles.
Ms. Ashton, too, said she was not certain where Mr. Morsi was being held.
“I saw where he was — I don’t know where he is — but I saw the facilities he has,” Ms. Ashton said after a two-hour visit with Mr. Morsi that involved helicopter and car trips to an undisclosed location.
“He’s well,” she said, without going into specifics.
Ms. Ashton had made her visit to Egypt conditional on seeing Mr. Morsi face to face, which she was not allowed to do on her last visit earlier this month, a senior European Union official said Tuesday night. The military’s condition was that she not reveal Mr. Morsi’s location, but because she was shuttled there late at night by helicopter, she did not in fact know where the meeting took place, the official said.
Her visit with Mr. Morsi was agreed upon with her own security personnel, who negotiated the trip with the Egyptian interim authority and the military, the official said. She made the trip with her director for the Middle East, Christian Berger, an Austrian who was appointed to the job in 2011 after running the European Union’s office in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
“She would not allow herself to just be whisked off, and neither would our security people,” the official said.