In June, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi delivers a speech in Cairo. (Egyptian presidency )
CAIRO -- Egyptian prosecutors Sunday ordered deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi to stand trial on murder-related charges, stepping up the military-backed government’s purge of the Muslim Brotherhood amid weeks of unrest that have deeply divided the country.
The legal maneuver against Morsi, who has been in detention since a coup toppled him in July, was expected. His supporters condemned the charges as politically motivated but the action indicated the military was confident its nationwide crackdown has severely weakened Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Prosecutors referred Morsi and 14 others, including Essam Erian, former deputy of the Brotherhood’s political wing, to criminal court on charges of inciting deadly violence during a December protest outside the presidential palace. At least 10 people were killed in clashes between Brotherhood loyalists and anti-Morsi protesters.
“Morsi and his presidential staff have been accused of ordering their supporters to attack peaceful protesters who assembled outside the palace,” the state-run newspaper Al Ahram said Sunday. “The move reportedly came after the Republican Guards and Ministry of Interior refused to obey orders to attack protesters.”
The incident drew harsh criticism of the Brotherhood and followed a string of political gambits by Morsi to expand his power. Anger at the Brotherhood intensified for months, resulting in the military takeover of the government after millions of Egyptians took to the streets against Morsi.
The U.S. and the European Union have urged Cairo to release the former leader, who stands accused of similar charges faced by his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, who is being retried for complicity in the deaths of more than 800 protesters during the 2011 uprising.
A clampdown by the army and police that began last month has killed more than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters and anti-military protesters. Most of the Brotherhood’s leadership, including supreme guide Mohamed Badie and his deputy Khairat Shater, face murder-related and other charges. Morsi is also being investigated for espionage.
Human rights groups have blamed authorities for using excessive force. The military, which has wide public support, has portrayed the Brotherhood and other Islamists as terrorists. Morsi’s critics have accused him of attempting to turn Egypt into an Islamic state, but much of the outrage against him stemmed from his authoritarian tactics and inability to fix the nation’s troubled economy.
The army’s control, which includes emergency law and a curfew, is so pervasive that protests by Brotherhood supporters have dwindled. The criminal case against Morsi is reminiscent of a crackdown in the 1950s that eventually pushed the group underground for decades.
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Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.