CAIRO – Mass death sentences are usually associated with regimes like those of Adolf Hitler’s Nazis or Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. But Egypt’s military rulers have now joined the ranks of such regimes, staging circus-like trials in which the outcome is foreordained. One such trial, in March 2014, produced 529 death sentences; another, in April, yielded 683 death sentences. And the trend shows no signs of slowing.
Last month, 107 people — including Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president — were handed death sentences for their alleged role in a mass “prison break” during the January 2011 uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak.
Morsi was also accused of “colluding with foreign militants” — that is, Hezbollah and Hamas — in order to free political prisoners in Egypt.
Soon after, the six defendants in the “Arab Sharkas” case — who were handed death sentences in October 2014 for allegedly attacking security posts — were executed, despite a local and international outcry against the flawed trial.
According to Ahmed Helmi, a lawyer for four of the six men, the government wanted to “send a message following Morsi’s verdict” that it would carry out such sentences. His clients and the others, he concluded, were just “scapegoats.”
Overall, civilian courts have handed down more than 1,000 death sentences since Egypt’s military overthrew Morsi in July 2013. The profiles of the “convicts” raise eyebrows: Emad Shahin, for example, is a world-renowned academic who has taught at Harvard and the American University in Cairo; Sondos Asem is a promising young scholar and political activist.
Making matters worse, extra-judicial killings by the security services and elements in the military are rampant. The most dramatic of these episodes accompanied the coup in July 2013, when Egyptian police and army opened fire on crowds protesting Morsi’s ouster in Cairo’s Rab’a Square, killing more than 1,000 protesters in less than 10 hours.
More recently, Islam Atito, an engineering student at Cairo’s Ain Shams University who supported the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, was found dead in the desert on the outskirts of Cairo. Egypt’s interior ministry claimed that Atito had been involved in the “assassination” of a police officer and was killed in a firefight with security forces during a raid on his “hideout.”
But according to the student union of the university’s engineering faculty — whose members collectively resigned in protest against the killing — Atito was arrested during a final exam on the university campus.
The government, it is claimed, had Atito abducted and murdered in response to his activism. As a human-rights lawyer monitoring the case notes, this is just one of several such cases — none of which is being seriously investigated.
These judicial and extra-judicial killings reflect the depth of Egypt’s current crisis. The “hawks” who control the security and military establishments seem intent on restoring a Mubarak-style regime, but with one key difference: they believe that Mubarak did too little to repress the opposition.
For Egypt’s current leadership, the brutal tactics employed by the likes of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Syria’s Bashar Assad are more likely to work in the Egyptian context than in those countries. After all, the probability of international intervention (as in Libya) is nil, and the likelihood of a full-fledged armed revolution (as in Syria) is extremely limited.
But relying on force to subdue dissent in a country where 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30 will be a major challenge, if not resulting in a bloodbath.
The brutal policies of Egypt’s hawks have also transformed the opposition. At a 2013 sit-in protesting Morsi’s ouster, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, declared, in what became a rallying cry for the movement, “Our peacefulness is stronger than their bullets.” But, with Badie having since been sentenced to death in multiple cases (including one related to attacks on police stations in the southern province of Minya), the phrase has become the subject of bitter mockery among young political activists, including Brotherhood members.
Rassd, a Brotherhood-affiliated news website, recently published a letter by the group’s former secretary-general, Mahmoud Ghozlan, asserting that the “revolution” will continue to be nonviolent.
But it also published harsh criticism of Ghozlan’s position by young Brotherhood activists — a notable development for an organization in which dissent is rarely publicized.
In fact, anger among younger members has become so acute that the Brotherhood has allegedly changed some 65 percent of its leadership, according to Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Administrative Office Abroad (a new body that organizes the thousands of Brotherhood members now in exile).
The organization has also adopted a harsher line, having publicly stated that the “reformist” approach that its government took after winning parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011 and 2012 was “wrong,” and that excluding non-Islamist revolutionary youth groups was a “major mistake.”
Given Egypt’s mass death sentences, extrajudicial violence and the dominance of hawks in the security and the military establishments, together with the rhetorical, behavioral and organizational changes within the Muslim Brotherhood, the chances of reconciliation are fading by the day. In an environment in which “compromise” is regarded as a dirty word, Egypt’s future appears to be far from bright.
Omar Ashour is senior lecturer in security studies at the University of Exeter and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London. He is the author of “The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements.” © Project Syndicate, 2015