In Depth

528 death sentences: more proof that Egypt is out of control

Al-Sisi needs to get a grip if US and secular middle classes are to support his leadership

Robert Fox

THE handing down of death sentences to 528 members of the Muslim Brotherhood by an Egyptian court seems rough justice even by the standards of a kangaroo court.

After only two court sessions, and without hearing any evidence in their defence, the judge in the central Egyptian town of Minya, a known focus of Islamic militancy, sentenced the 528 for their role in the murder of a policeman during riots last year.

The disturbances followed the killing of some 600 Muslim Brotherhood members when military and police broke up a protest camp in Cairo in the wake of the military coup that removed President Mohamed Morsi from office.

Today a further 682 defendants go on trial, including Mohammed Badie, the spiritual guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. 

It is hard to establish what the judge, Said Youssef, thought he was doing yesterday.

Gamal Abdal Nasser, who led Egypt in the first flush of national independence over 60 years ago, used to resort to special tribunals to deal with his Islamic enemies. The old fox confided to a friend towards the end of his life in 1970 that he used special courts in order not to embarrass Egypt’s lawyers and judges.

But Judge Youssef was presiding – alone - over a regular court, part of the mainstream Egyptian judicial system, such as it is these days.

Many lawyers in Egypt have spoken out against the sentences, and say the entire proceedings should go to appeal. Most expect the death sentences to be revoked – and anyway they would have to be approved by Egypt’s leading cleric, the Grand Mufti of Cairo, before they could go ahead.

If Judge Youssef was trying to help propel Field Marshal Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, the Defence Minister and de facto strongman of the current regime, to the presidency, it is likely to backfire.

The sentencing will annoy the regime’s principal supporter, the United States, and alienate Egypt's secular middle classes.

The Obama administration appears to have decided to go along with Sisi, though with considerable embarrassment and without advertising the fact. (With commendable understatement, a US State Department spokeswoman said of the Minya death penalties: “We are certainly raising it with the Egyptian government … it’s a pretty shocking number.”)

As for the secular Egyptians, they too tend to support Sisi and the military because they fear the Brotherhood and its more fundamentalist allies and offshoots like the al-Nur grassroots movement. But they want a credible and durable solution to the current crisis – one that will bring constitutional stability, not more death and riots.

They see and fear the chaos and anarchy produced by the Arab spring upheavals in neighbours like Libya, and even Tunisia, and their biggest concern now is that no one is really in control in Egypt.

The military appeared to have learned some hard lessons from the debacle of the Mubarak regime and its sham displays of democratic rituals and institutions. Among those that seemed to have learned the old ways could not continue was Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi and his class of officers.

But the Minya death sentences and the arrests of foreign journalists such as Peter Greste and Mohamed Fadel Fahmy of Al-Jazeera – both distinguished journalists who respectively had worked for the BBC and CNN – suggest otherwise. 

Writing nearly two weeks ago in Foreign Policy, Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation described Egypt now as “a ship without a rudder”.

Hanna suggested that only Sisi stands a chance of keeping the military in order, slowly introducing genuine democracy, and taming the notorious Interior Ministry and its police forces - and, he might have added, if he had been writing today, dealing with wildcats like Judge Youssef who are emerging for the mainstream judiciary and civil service.

But the tasks ahead, Hanna warned, promise to be too big for any one man or institution.

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