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How Effective was Kerry’s Mending Mission to Egypt and Saudi Arabia?

November 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
It was a dramatic day in court for former Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi. Gwen Ifill speaks to McClatchy's Nancy Youssef who was on the scene inside the courtroom. Then, Margaret Warner offers analysis on Secretary of State John Kerry's attempt to mend strained relations with longtime allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

GWEN IFILL: Nancy Youssef is covering the trial for McClatchy Newspapers. I spoke with her a short time ago.

So, Nancy Youssef, apparently, Mohammed Morsi resisted everything, including what prison uniform — or what uniform of any kind he would wear to court today. What happened in that courtroom?

NANCY YOUSSEF, McClatchy Newspapers: It was actually quite dramatic.

It was a lot of yelling by Mohammed Morsi and the six other defendants in the cage with them. Every time the judge tried to proceed with the case normally, they would yell that the courtroom and the trial was a farce. Mohammed Morsi repeatedly said that he was their president and called the process invalid.

When he walked in, one of the journalists yelled “Execution, God willing” to him. And there was even fights that broke out between the journalists and some of the Morsi lawyers and those of his co-defendants.

And so there was so much chaos and drama that, at the end of the day, the judge determined that the case couldn’t proceed. And it was adjourned until January 8.

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GWEN IFILL: Was the point of Mohammed Morsi’s protest to say that he was — they didn’t even have the right to be trying him because he still is the legitimate president?

NANCY YOUSSEF: That’s right.

He really — we hadn’t seen Mohammed Morsi since July 2, the day before his ouster by the military. And he really picked off exactly where he had left off in that speech, saying that he was the president. His lawyers said that if they wanted to remove the president that there was a constitutional process to do that, suggesting that the court session was, in fact, illegal, and essentially tried to carry himself as the president.

Even the co-defendants tried to treat him still as president, the fact that he was wearing a suit when he walked in. He smiled and gave a wave that has become popular among the Islamists. And the fellow — his fellow co-defendants let him take the lead.

And so there was an effort in that courtroom to really state and show the position of Morsi and his supporters that the process is invalid and that he remains the president.

GWEN IFILL: What is the state now of the Muslim Brotherhood, of Mohammed Morsi’s party?

NANCY YOUSSEF: It’s interesting.

What we saw in the courtroom really reflected what’s been happening outside the courtroom. The entire leadership of the very centralized organization has been arrested. And because of that, the organization has been quite fractured. Where the Muslim Brotherhood could once get hundreds of thousands of people to the street, today only managed to get a few thousand.

And one could really feel the absence of that leadership as they tried to galvanize support for Mohammed Morsi and his first appearance in court. At the same time, one could also feel the fear that the military felt about the Brotherhood and their ability to create instability in the state, the fact that this trial was not broadcast live, that journalists who were allowed in could not bring cameras or telephones, and that the only images came out later through state television.

The fear that the Brotherhood could rise up and cause instability was certainly felt and reflected in the military’s decision to not allow people to even see Morsi being held by — by the new government.

GWEN IFILL: So if they were unable to even get this trial started today, what is — and it’s been put off until January — what is expected to change that will allow this to get under way?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, I think what’s going to happen is, we will see more restrictions put on those defendants, such that they can’t speak, so that the judge allows them to speak.

There may be efforts to create some sort of legal process such that they’re not required to speak as much, because every time they did — they were asked to speak, to answer things like their name and the charges put before them, they used it as an opportunity to state their political positions.

So my guess is, we will see more restrictions on that front. It was quite a contrast from when Hosni Mubarak, Morsi’s predecessor, was in jail. He was quite quiet and cool. And so the outbursts were unusual for these what’s become relatively frequent trials of former presidents. So my guess is, we will see some adjustments in terms of their ability to speak in court or be addressed by the court in future sessions.

GWEN IFILL: Nancy Youssef reporting from Cairo tonight for McClatchy Newspapers, thanks so much for helping us out.

NANCY YOUSSEF: Thanks, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: We mentioned earlier that Secretary of State John Kerry has visited both Egypt and Saudi Arabia in recent days to work on U.S. relations with both countries.

NewsHour chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins me now for more on this latest diplomatic effort.

Margaret, welcome again.

Listen, it’s interesting to me that John Kerry would happen to be in Egypt on the same day that Mohammed Morsi comes out of seclusion, out of jail, to go on trial. Coincidence?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, and, actually, it was the day before. No, it was very much awkward timing.


MARGARET WARNER: The timing of the trip was dictated by what he is doing on the back end in Algeria and Morocco.

But they very aware of the awkwardness of this timing. And, in fact, unusually, his trip wasn’t announced. His visit wasn’t announced until he got on the ground. Now, usually, that only happens when you go into a really dangerous place like Iraq or Afghanistan.

And I’m told it reflected the sensitivity about the timing, the awareness of the sort of difficult security situation in Egypt, and also the anti-American feeling. All right. So, that said, they really thought about what he would say.

And you saw yesterday in his press conference with the foreign minister, he said, we really think Egypt is on this road map to restoring civilian democracy. He was very encouraging about that. But he — and he said, we certainly expect that the constitution will include — will insure “all Egyptians” — quote, unquote — access to full and fair trials and transparent ones and due process. So, that was as far as he went.


There has been some awkwardness because the U.S. has not conceded that a coup actually happened in Egypt. Any of that — was any of that on display, or is that just something that they are tiptoeing around?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, whether to call it a coup or not, this military-installed government is glad that…


MARGARET WARNER: … at least the administration didn’t do that.

But, again, you saw Secretary Kerry walking this really fine line, because most now — a lot of Egyptians are mad at the U.S. for not endorsing the coup.


MARGARET WARNER: What was clearly a coup.

So, again, you saw Secretary Kerry basically saying, you know, we applaud them being on the right track. The Egyptian officials actually told me afterwards they considered it very positive, because at least it showed the U.S. was now ready to move forward with this relationship, despite the fact that this is not a civilian government.

But for the U.S., it’s a more mixed picture. And Kerry had to signal that about what — when and if the partial aid suspension will be restored.

GWEN IFILL: Well, speaking of awkwardness, let’s move to Saudi Arabia, where…

MARGARET WARNER: Another longtime partner of the United States in the region, yes.

GWEN IFILL: Exactly, where he was also forced to walk a very thin, perilous line diplomatically.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. Yes, because Secretary — because the United States, which has been a longtime partner of the Saudis in that region, finally, Saudi Arabia’s unhappiness with the Obama administration burst into full flower, as we recall, a couple of weeks ago, with blind quotes and attributed quotes to the intelligence chief voicing such displeasure over the U.S., what they see as the — President Obama’s flip-flop on whether or not to strike Syria over chemical weapons, for one, and, two, its now very vigorous pursuit of negotiations with Iran.

So, for Saudi, it is really all about the big struggle for power in the region between itself and Iran. And there’s definitely a doubt about the steadfastness of the U.S.

GWEN IFILL: So, is it real anger or is this diplomatic anger?

MARGARET WARNER: That’s much debated.

There is real anger on the issues. And you heard that from the foreign minister today, who really ticked them off. And he said at one point there are ticking time bombs that cannot just be managed and managed endlessly. And he was talking about Syria and Iran. But I’m reliably told that the Saudis, despite the threats and some of those earlier stories, they don’t plan to try to totally go it alone in funding and giving arms to rebels in Syria, because they think only the U.S. actually has both the intelligence — has the intelligence capability to vet.

They don’t want jihadis getting a hold of those weapons any more than Washington does.

GWEN IFILL: And Iran is the backdrop to all of this.


MARGARET WARNER: And Iran, of course, siding with Assad, is the backdrop to this siding, as well as every other issue on which the Saudis are currently disappointed with the United States.

So I think we can expect the Saudis to continue to press the U.S. not to give away the store to Iran, not to lift sanctions too soon, and to do more to help the so-called moderate rebels in Syria.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner, thanks so much.