Egypt's Mursi defiant as court seeks death penalty

By Michael Georgy CAIRO (Reuters) - Standing in a metal cage wearing a blue prison uniform, ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi punched his fists in the air and smiled on Saturday just before a court announced it would seek the death penalty against him. But the defiance of the country's first freely elected president, who dreamed of creating an "Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation", appears increasingly irrelevant amid the toughest crackdown on Islamists in Egypt's history. Mursi and fellow defendants including the Brotherhood's top leader Mohamed Badie were convicted of killing and kidnapping policemen, attacking police facilities and breaking out of jail during the 2011 uprising against veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Before any executions can take place, the cases must be referred to Egypt's top religious authority, the Grand Mufti, although his opinion is non-binding. A final ruling is expected on June 2. The court also sought capital punishment for Brotherhood leader Khairat el-Shater and 15 others for conspiring with foreign militant groups. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who ousted Mursi in 2013 after mass protests against his rule, has repeatedly portrayed the Brotherhood as a terrorist group that poses an existential threat to Egypt. That message has been well received by many Egyptians whose desire for stability made them turn a blind eye to Sisi's crackdown on Mursi and his supporters. Mursi, 63, does not recognize the court cases stacked against him, describing them as part of a military coup that rolled back freedoms won in the 2011 uprising that ended Mubarak's three-decade rule. He has only been seen in televised snippets from court sessions since his detention in 2013 and other leaders of the Middle East's oldest Islamist group are all behind bars. Long Egypt's main political opposition, the Brotherhood did not imagine until 2011 it could rule the country, and some argue the decision to seek the presidency was a miscalculation. While effective underground, it struggled to meet the desires of about 90 million Egyptians for better services and jobs, and Mursi was overthrown after a year in office by Mubarak's former intelligence chief Sisi, who promised a roadmap to democracy. Some Egyptians accused Mursi of abusing power and neglecting the economy, which the Brotherhood denies, while rumors he intended to give part or all of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula to Palestinian militant group Hamas added to suspicions about him. Following his fall in mid-2013, hundreds of Mursi supporters were shot dead at a Cairo protest camp and thousands of others rounded up, dashing the hopes of detained Brotherhood leaders who hoped the unrest would break the army's grip on power. Mursi's year-long tenure was Egypt's only period of civilian rule since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. ISOLATED IN JAIL Egypt has defended its actions against protesters, saying they were given opportunities to disperse peacefully, and blamed Brotherhood militants for the violence. It says all defendants are given a fair trial by an independent judiciary. The Brotherhood says it is still determined to win back power peacefully but, fearing arrest, Islamists hold only small and fleeting protests nowadays. Both Mursi and the Brotherhood have been demonized in the press. There are no signs either side is willing to reconcile, but carrying out a death sentence against figures such as Mursi or Badie could backfire by turning them into martyrs and re-energizing Brotherhood members who have managed to evade arrest. Western diplomats say Egyptian officials acknowledge privately that executing Mursi would be risky. The peasant farmer's son with a doctorate from the University of Southern California was a late entrant to the presidential race in 2012, after the Brotherhood's preferred candidate Shater was disqualified on a technicality. The Brotherhood, which won grassroots support through charity and once dominated professions such as the law, medicine and engineering, has survived crackdowns under successive autocrats in Egypt, birthplace of political Islam. But some young supporters no longer look to the Brotherhood's leaders for guidance. That raises the possibility they will lose patience and take up arms in a country where militants based in the Sinai Peninsula have killed hundreds of police and soldiers since Mursi's fall. (Editing by Catherine Evans)