Noose around Egypt

Print edition : May 30, 2014

Egyptians react outside the courtroom in Minya after a judge sentenced Muslim Brotherhood's supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, and 682 others to death on April 28. Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP

Ousted President Mohamed Morsi inside a defendant's cage during his trial in Cairo on April 30. Photo: Ahmed Omar/AP

Mohamed Badie, Muslim Brotherhood's supreme guide. Photo: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP

A man pins pictures of former President Hosni Mubarak on a poster showing presidential hopeful Abdel Fattah El-Sissi in Cairo on May 4. Photo: Amr Nabil/AP

It is back to the Mubarak era in Egypt as the country is headed for a one-party authoritarian rule after a brief but heady hiatus. Liberal parties that helped in the ouster of the elected Morsi government find themselves in the wilderness.

THE military-backed interim government in Egypt has shown scant regard for domestic and international public opinion since it took over power in July 2013. It ran roughshod over the media, banned the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest political party in Egypt, and incarcerated its top leadership along with thousands of its members and sympathisers. Since the beginning of this year, the government has extended its crackdown to secular and liberal parties and individuals. Incidentally, many of these parties and intellectuals had initially welcomed the coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi. It was the “Tamarod” (rebel) group, consisting mainly of young pro-democracy activists, which had spearheaded the protests calling for the resignation of the Morsi government in June last year. The Army used the demonstrations, in which more than a million Egyptians participated, as a pretext to oust the Morsi government.

The Tamarod had originally demanded only a “peaceful transition” to a democratic path. It had accused the Muslim Brotherhood government of monopolising power with the aim of enforcing an Islamist agenda in the country. One of the co-founders of the Tamarod movement, Moheb Doss, has now admitted that the group was working in tandem with the military and security establishment to destabilise the Morsi government. Egyptian officials have themselves acknowledged that the Army and security services had extended tactical and logistical support to mobilise tens of thousands of people for the protests. With the Army once again in full control, the Tamarod and other liberal parties find themselves in the wilderness once again. The vestiges of the Hosni Mubarak era still remain as Egypt seems to be heading for a one-party authoritarian rule once again after a brief but heady hiatus.

Collective death sentence

Recent events have shown that the main target of repression is the Muslim Brotherhood. There appears to be no signs of a let-up in the purge of the party. Scattered attacks on military and police posts by armed groups in the Sinai and other parts of the country have been blamed on the Brotherhood. The death sentences awarded to 720 Egyptians in two separate judgments by a court in Minya, a provincial capital 150 kilometres south of Cairo, on April 28, is the latest illustration of the ongoing purge. The sentences were announced after mass trials lasting only a few minutes. Lawyers for the accused were not given an opportunity to speak and the majority of those sentenced to death were not even present in the courtroom. In the first week of May, a court in Cairo awarded life sentences to more than 100 Brotherhood supporters.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has issued a statement criticising the verdict. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, described the action of the judge as “outrageous”. The judgments have been described by human rights groups as the largest possible collective death sentence in recent world history. Observers noted that the Egyptian court handed down the verdicts just days after the United States government approved the supply of 10 Apache attack helicopters along with $650 million in military aid to Egypt. The Barack Obama administration had suspended military aid to Egypt soon after the democratically elected Morsi government was overthrown. The U.S. has been a consistent backer of military rule in Egypt. Ever since President Anwar Sadat capitulated and signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979, Washington has been providing Cairo $1.55 billion annually in military aid.

Most of those condemned to death are either members or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The ouster of Morsi and the bloodshed that followed led to the imposition of draconian laws and mass arrests of opposition leaders and activists. The 1,200 defendants sentenced until now were arrested on charges of using violence during the protests. More than 2,000 people were killed in the protests. Only one policeman was killed in the violence.

Mohamed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, is among the 683 men condemned to death for killing a policeman in August last year. A defiant Badie said the court’s ruling “is the last nail in the coffin of the ruling powers that led the coup” against an elected government. The Brotherhood has, however, said that it remained committed to peaceful resistance to the Army-backed government. Said Yusuf, the judge who passed the death sentences against the 683 Brotherhood supporters, also confirmed the death sentences of 37 of the 529 Brotherhood supporters he had ordered “to hang” in a ruling in March. The other defendants in the first case were given 25 years in prison. Egyptian law allows another trial of those convicted in absentia. The “Grand Mufti”, the government-appointed spiritual head of Egyptian Muslims, has the power to issue pardons.

Many observers of the Egyptian scene are of the opinion that the harsh nature of the punishment is meant to be a warning to the opponents of the interim government. The government is unlikely to go ahead with most of the executions. Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, who was on a visit to Washington, said the alarm about the judgment was unwarranted, suggesting that it would be overturned on appeal. In 1954, President Gamal Abdel Nasser had commuted the death sentence on the Supreme Guide Hasan el-Houdaibi.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not seem too perturbed by the turn of events in Egypt despite a statement by the State Department describing the court ruling as “unconscionable”. Welcoming Fahmy, Kerry stressed that the two countries were “important strategic partners”. He praised the Egyptian government for taking “positive steps” towards democracy but conceded reluctantly that there were “some disturbing decisions within the court system”. U.S. Congressmen such as Senator Patrick Leahy have taken a less lenient view of the goings-on in Egypt. Leahy has threatened to block further U.S. military aid to Egypt. He described the regime in Cairo “as a dictatorship run amok”.

With the presidential election scheduled for May 26-27 and General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the former Defence Minister, all set to be voted in as the new civilian President, the government does not want any serious roadblocks on its path. The former military strongman is seeking a mandate to continue “the fight against terror”. His only rival is Hamdeen Sabahi, who stood third in the 2012 presidential election. Sabahi espouses a left-wing Nasserist ideology and has been openly critical of El-Sisi. He has been an anti-establishment figure since the early 1980s and was incarcerated during the Mubarak era for his political activism. He said there was no difference between the Mubarak-era policies and those being implemented by the interim government. He faces an uphill task with all the important media outlets fully under the control of the security establishment.

April 6 Movement banned

In a separate but related event, another Egyptian court banned the anti-Mubarak “April 6 Movement” on the same day the mass death sentences were announced. This secular grouping had spearheaded the protests that led to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. The court acted on a complaint from an individual who had alleged that the group had “tarnished the image of the Egyptian state” and conspired against the country’s national interests. Ahmed Maher and Mohammed Adel, the two leaders of the April 6 Movement, have been arrested for staging a demonstration without obtaining police permission.

Belal Fadl, a prominent intellectual and political satirist, has been blacklisted for lampooning El-Sisi. Fadl has been equally trenchant in his criticism of the Brotherhood and the Islamists. Immediately after the military takeover in July last year and its bloody aftermath, Fadl wrote that he detested both the Brotherhood and those who ousted them from power equally. “I detest you exactly as I detest those who kill you in cold blood. I detest you all because you are exactly the same as each other,” he said in his reaction to the events. Prominent mediapersons, including foreigners working for the international media, have been imprisoned for violating the new media laws.

One of the major factors that made the Morsi government act in haste on matters relating to constitutional law was the entrenched nature of the Egyptian judiciary. The judiciary was never reconciled to the demise of the Mubarak regime and the courts stymied many of the political reforms that the Muslim Brotherhood government wanted to implement. After the adoption of the Constitution, which was approved in a referendum in early 2012, the Morsi government was no doubt keen to overhaul the judicial system. It wanted to replicate what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) had done in Turkey in the last decade. Erdogan, with the help of his now estranged political partner, Fethullah Gulen, had painstakingly changed the “secular fundamentalist” character of the judiciary as well as the security services. The Army in Turkey is no longer a threat to the democratic institutions of the country. But before the Muslim Brotherhood leadership could implement its blueprint, the Egyptian security struck and removed Morsi from power. Erdogan, along with the Qatari government, were the biggest political and financial backers of the ousted regime.