Egypt’s chief prosecutor ordered former president Mohamed Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders on Sunday to stand trial on charges including inciting murder, the state news media reported. The order seemed to extinguish hope of a political resolution that would bring the Brotherhood out from underground and back into the political process.
The authorities, who allege that Mr. Morsi stoked deadly clashes outside his palace in December, did not detail the evidence against him on Sunday. There is no public record of statements he may have made to incite violence. Since Mr. Morsi was deposed on July 3, setting off protest rallies and sit-ins across the country, the authorities have killed more than 1,000 of his supporters and jailed much of the Brotherhood’s senior leadership. The former president himself had been detained without formal charges since his overthrow.
The developments on Sunday seemed to close off any chance for an imminent settlement to the standoff between the Islamists of the Brotherhood and the military, and marked another confounding turn for Egypt’s chaotic political transition. As the country has lurched between military rule and fledgling democracy, its judiciary has remained marred by politics, one of many lingering remnants of Egypt’s authoritarian past.
The timing of the prosecutor’s order reinforced that feeling: Mr. Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, was charged with capital crimes 12 days after his autocratic predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, was released from prison, though he remained under house arrest as he awaits a second trial on charges of complicity in the deaths of hundreds of protesters.
“The military and the state are trying to push the Brotherhood to lose any hope that he will be reinstated,” Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said of the order to prosecute Mr. Morsi. “It’s an attempt to paralyze the movement, and affect its activism. It’s very symbolic — this is a political move by the state against the Brotherhood.”
The charges were announced on the same day that Egypt’s military-backed government named a 50-person committee to amend a draft constitution. Like the government, the committee includes only a few Islamists, effectively marginalizing the country’s leading political movements as the country’s basic charter is rewritten. Officials said members of the Brotherhood had declined invitations to participate.
The charges lodged against Mr. Morsi and 14 of his aides and colleagues in the Brotherhood relate to fatal clashes between the president’s supporters and his opponents during one of the darkest periods of Mr. Morsi’s troubled presidency.
On Dec. 5, Brotherhood leaders, apparently worried that the army and police had refused to protect the presidential palace from protesters, summoned their civilian supporters to do the job. In late afternoon, Islamists attacked a sit-in by Mr. Morsi’s opponents outside the palace. Then, after dark, thousands of Mr. Morsi’s opponents retaliated, and a nightlong street fight ensued.
The abuses committed by the Islamists included beating or interrogating dozens of their opponents, detaining some for hours with their hands bound.
Human rights advocates were especially troubled by statements Mr. Morsi made afterward, in which he cited confessions made by the detainees as proof that they were paid to protest against him.
In a statement on Sunday, the chief prosecutor, Hesham Barakat, said that two of the president’s aides called on supporters that night to defend the palace, after the Republican Guard and the police refused to come to Mr. Morsi’s aid, in order “to protect the lives of the protesters.”
According to the statement, senior Brotherhood leaders including Essam el-Erian “incited the forcible dispersal of the sit-in.” Mr. Morsi was charged with “inciting his supporters and aides to commit the crimes of premeditated murder and to use violence and thuggery to impose their power.”
The statement said Mr. Morsi’s supporters killed a journalist, Al-Hussein Abu Deif. But it made no mention of at least eight other people, all supporters of Mr. Morsi, who were killed that night, nor any charges against the perpetrators of those killings. No trial date was announced.
Prosecutors have also been investigating Mr. Morsi on charges related to his prison escape during the 2011 uprising against Mr. Mubarak, saying the escape was part of a conspiracy with the militant Palestinian group Hamas.
Mr. Morsi’s supporters have continued their protests despite the crackdown, though they have begun to de-emphasize demands that he be reinstated, perhaps hoping to broaden their appeal among Egyptians.
Mr. Anani speculated that the decision to charge Mr. Morsi might be intended to finally wrest a settlement with the Islamists on the military’s terms, or it might be a final step before formally ordering the Brotherhood dissolved. “I think it’s the second one,” he said. “And it might provoke them, or encourage them, to protest more.”