Morsi’s supporters, battered by a bloody and sweeping police crackdown, accuse the army-installed government of fabricating the charges and have called for protests against the military.
Morsi was flown in by helicopter to the police academy in the capital where the trial is being convened, and his 14 co-defendants were also present, said Cairo security chief Osama al-Soghayar.
It was Morsi’s first public appearance since the army overthrew him on July 3 after mass street protests against his single year of turbulent rule.
Judge Ahmed Sabry Youssef banned cameras and recording equipment from the courtroom, while a security official said proceedings had been delayed because Morsi was not wearing the customary white prison outfit, which he later donned.
Outside the court in east Cairo, dozens of Morsi supporters brandished posters of him and signs bearing anti-military messages. Thousands also protested in front of the constitutional court in the south of the capital.
“Morsi’s trial is a facade. The criminals are trying the legitimate president,” said one Morsi supporter, Ibrahim Abdel Samd.
Tensions were also high in front of the high court in downtown Cairo where pro- and anti-Morsi supporters had gathered.
Security forces completely closed Nahda Square — site of a bloody crackdown on Morsi supporters in August — and Cairo University, while military vehicles guarded police stations.
The authorities have deployed 20,000 policemen for the trial, and say they are ready to deal with any violence.
Morsi, who the army has held at a secret location since his ouster, is accused along with the other 14 of inciting the murder of protesters outside the presidential palace in December 2012.
The charges against Morsi could lead to the death penalty or life in prison.
The trial is seen as a test for Egypt’s new authorities, who have come under fire for their heavy-handedness.
With more than 1,000 people killed since Morsi’s overthrow and thousands of Islamists arrested, hopes for a political settlement are slim.
“Morsi’s presence in the court will definitely energise his supporters and raise possibilities of new protests and clashes,” said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center think-tank.
Amnesty International’s Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said Morsi should be granted a “fair trial, including the right to challenge the evidence against him in court”.
“Failing to do so would further call into question the motives behind his trial.”
But analysts believe the political nature of the trial will drive its outcome.
“This is first and foremost a political trial and an important one. There is zero chance of it being free and fair,” said Hamid. “The trial is a clear reminder of a polarised Egyptian society at this moment of time.”
On the eve of the court case, the interim government said Morsi would be tried “before a judge according to Egyptian penal code”.
“Nothing extraordinary, nothing exceptional. He will have rights to have a free and fair trial,” said foreign ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty.
Morsi was catapulted from the underground offices of the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood to become Egypt’s first democratically elected president in June 2012.
His victory was made possible by the 2011 uprising that toppled autocratic president Hosni Mubarak.
But his stint at the helm was marred by political turmoil, deadly clashes and a crippling economic crisis.
In November 2012, Morsi decreed himself sweeping powers, prompting opponents to accuse him of failing the ideals of the revolution.
It was a turning-point that launched the worst polarisation in Egypt’s recent history.
A month later, deadly clashes erupted outside the presidential palace between the Islamist’s supporters and opponents. Morsi is facing allegations of inciting that violence.
Accusing police of failing to protect the president, the Brotherhood called on its supporters to confront the protesters. At least seven people were killed in the clashes that erupted on December 5 last year.
Morsi remains defiant, say his supporters.
He “does not recognise the authority of the court,” said the Anti-Coup Alliance backing him, adding his lawyers will attend the hearing only as observers.