RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in the Cairo today where he acknowledged that there have been difficult challenges but he urged Egyptians to continue their, quote, "march to democracy." Kerry is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Egypt since the army there overthrew the country's democratically-elected president. Mohamed Morsi, who was in power for just one year, had led a brutal crackdown on demonstrators. Kerry's brief visit comes just one day before Morsi goes on trial for inciting murder.

Merrit Kennedy reports.

MOHAMED MORSI: (Foreign language spoken)

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: The last time Morsi's supporters saw him was on July 2nd. The former President was delivering a defiant speech as hundreds of thousands his opponents rallied in Cairo and other cities demanding his removal. The next day, the military stepped in. Morsi was overthrown. What came next was a massive government crackdown on his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Heba Morayef, the Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch, says the opening of Morsi's trial is a new rallying point for his supporters.

HEBA MORAYEF: And so, whether or not Morsi actually ends up appearing in court, I think there is likely to be a very angry reaction either way and then possibly violence.

KENNEDY: If Morsi appears, she says it could energize the protests against the military-installed government. And if the security services don't allow him into the courtroom, his absence would further enrage his supporters.

But Hassan Abu Taleb, an analyst with the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, sees the trial as a step forward.

HASSAN ABU TALEB: Now we feel that we are moving on. We are moving on to rebuild our new regime, to rebuild our new situation - politically, economically and also in the security affairs.

KENNEDY: He says the trial will mean the end of the Muslim Brotherhood in politics.

The Ministry of Interior says it will deploy a 20,000-man force to secure the courtroom at a police facility in Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

KENNEDY: Morsi supporters continue to protest against the new government, though in smaller numbers than before in the face of the ongoing crackdown. More than a thousand members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have been killed in clashes with the police over the past few months, and thousands more have been arrested including most of the Brotherhood's key leaders. The Cairo court formally banned the group though the Brotherhood has filed an appeal.

MOHAMMED AL-DAMATY: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: Mohammed al-Damaty, Morsi's legal spokesman, says the ousted president refuses to retain defense attorneys because he rejects the legitimacy of his trial. Damaty insists there is no evidence against the former president.

Heba Morayef, of Human Rights Watch, says there have already been some worrying signs before the trial begins.

MORAYEF: Already we've seen very, very serious violations of the right to a fair trial and Morsi's right to be free of arbitrary detention.

KENNEDY: Morsi is facing an array of charges; many of them focusing on clashes outside the presidential palace last December between his supporters and opponents. Morayef was there and documented abuse of detainees by the Muslim Brotherhood.

MORAYEF: I think most of the charges are trumped up. And I think that trial itself is definitely politicized. Having said that, I think in the case of the charges related to detention and abuse of detainees, I think there is some merit to it.

KENNEDY: However, she says that because the judiciary has only focused on Brotherhood abuses, and not on crimes committed by the security services, nothing positive can come from this trial for accountability in Egypt.

Morsi rapidly lost popular support during his year in power and much of the Egyptian public supports the trial going forward as planned, like Said Mohammed, an engineer sitting at a downtown cafe.

SAID MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: He says the case must proceed because it's not right to keep Morsi detained without a trial. And for many here, when the former president walks into the courtroom, it'll be the beginning of yet another chapter for Egypt.

For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Cairo.

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