Justice, Egyptian Style – a Long, Sharp Shock

The 25-year sentence handed down to a leading activist from the 2011 revolution sends a clear message to Egyptians ahead of this spring’s parliamentary elections.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Egyptian Judge Mohammed Nagi Shehata in court, February 4, 2015.
Egyptian Judge Mohammed Nagi Shehata in court, February 4, 2015. Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The name Ahmed Douma is familiar to anyone who’s been following Egypt’s unraveling revolution these past four years. The 26-year-old, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, gained a questionable new distinction on Wednesday by becoming the only liberal activist to be sentenced to life imprisonment and a fine of 17 million Egyptian pounds ($2.2 million), following charges of taking part in clashes between protesters and security forces in 2011.

Douma is already a seasoned prisoner. He was arrested and imprisoned 18 times during the tenures of former President Hosni Mubarak and the military regime that succeeded him. He was also sentenced to three years in prison after President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi came to power, for breaking the draconian, anti-demonstration laws that require a permit be issued before any demonstration.

Douma epitomizes the new Egyptian “justice” – intolerance of any criticism of the regime, particularly not of the president. Douma’s sentence, handed down during the week in which Egypt is marking the fourth anniversary of the Tahrir Square revolution, delivers a sharp message to all protest movements in the country.

He appeared in court without representation, after his lawyers resigned in protest over the way his trial was being conducted, over the location of proceedings in a police building, and the fact that their request to replace the judge had been denied. The judge, Mohammed Nagi Shehata, had already presided in cases dealing with Douma, exhibiting hostility toward their client.

The state appointed a new lawyer for Douma, but he was negligent and could not gather testimonies in an orderly manner, according to Douma’s original lawyers. On hearing the sentence on Wednesday, Douma applauded the judge, who promptly threatened to add three years to his sentence for contempt of court. “While Mubarak is enjoying a reprieve, Douma is going to jail,” fume his friends, warning against the return of the previous era, this time in the guise of Sissi.

Douma’s trial and his harsh, unprecedented sentence [a life sentence in Egypt is 25 years] are not disconnected from the simmering political system, which is gearing up for two rounds of parliamentary elections, in March and April. These elections will bring to an end the road map designed by Sissi when he took over in July 2013, deposing former President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.

According to electoral law, only 120 of the 567 members in the People’s Assembly will be elected from official lists, with 420 other seats contested by independent individuals (the remainder will be chosen directly by Sissi). This distribution enables the president and his supporters to ensure that most of the independent candidates will be his people, guaranteeing their victory.

A new gimmick has also been added, requiring that all candidates undergo extensive medical examinations. This will preclude anyone with serious disabilities or heart disease, cancer or mental disease from competing. This is meant to ensure that no one unable to fulfill their public duties will be elected. This demand has been disputed, raising questions of infringements on the civil rights of people with disabilities or illness. Protest movements are particularly infuriated by the high costs of such examinations – which can reach as high as 9,000 Egyptian pounds (almost $1,200) – which will deter many young people from running. Of further concern is the fact that knowledge of the candidates’ intimate medical details could serve the regime if it wishes to harm them.

The way the regime is preparing for these elections is designed not only at preventing independent supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood from running, but also to block representatives of protest movements from attaining their goals and correcting mistakes that left them outside parliament following earlier elections in which the religious movements won.

The fear factor

The ones “helping” Sissi gain political ground are the terrorist organizations that continue to attack targets in Sinai and Egypt’s larger cities on a daily basis. “People are afraid of going on a train or the underground,” an Egyptian journalist – who needs to remain anonymous so as not to be accused of “normalizing relations with Israel” – tells Haaretz. “I prefer taking a taxi to work, but remember how, on an earlier visit to Israel, people would skirt around garbage cans, worried about hidden explosive devices. We don’t have garbage cans, but the fear is palpable.”

Combating terror is not a convenient political excuse in Egypt – it’s sincere and comprehensive. Sissi announced last week that he was devoting 10 billion Egyptian pounds ($1.3 billion) to rid the Sinai Peninsula of terrorists and develop infrastructure there. This won’t happen overnight, and the Bedouin are not holding their breath in anticipation of industrial plants in El Arish that will replace their traditional sources of revenue – gun smuggling and collaboration with Islamist terror organizations. However, the war on terror is a convenient cover to block other opponents of the regime, even when these are not terrorists or associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

In order to deflect criticism directed at his human rights record, Egypt’s president is fanning hopes of economic achievements, with a long-planned conference to be held from March 13-15 in Sharm el-Sheikh. Heads of state, international corporations and potential investors were all invited, with the hope of creating the economic miracle Sissi had promised his citizens. The Gulf states committed this past week to investing $10 billion in Egypt, already ensuring the conference’s success. Another planned conference, dealing with the reconstruction of Gaza, is on hold with no new date set as yet. As long as Sissi is waging war against Hamas and a court declares its military wing [Iz al-Din al-Qassam] a terror organization, there is no rush to rehabilitate Gaza, which would entail an opening of the Rafah border crossing.

The Gulf state assistance shields Sissi from potential changes in Saudi policies, although most of the money covers Egypt’s enormous debt, with little remaining for development. Russian President Vladimir Putin is coming on an official visit on February 9-10, raising concerns in Washington over Egypt’s adherence to its alliance with the West. Putin is interested in arms deals, but Egypt is concerned about prohibitions on Russian wheat exports – on which it is highly dependent. The Egyptian public is more concerned with commodity prices than Sissi’s global considerations.

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