Egyptian Rights Groups Fume Over Islamist Death Sentences

Ruling sentencing 529 people to death also embarrasses presidential candidate General Sissi, who doesn’t want world to see him as a mass murderer.

Relatives of supporters of Egyptian ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi outside courthouse.
Relatives of supporters of Egyptian ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi gather outside the courthouse on March 25, 2014 in the central Egyptian city of Minya. AFP

“Wholesale death sentences are a new invention of the road map,” wrote poet Abdul Rahman Yusuf on his Facebook page, in response to the punishment imposed by an Egyptian court on 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters on Monday.

By “road map,” he was referring to the political reform plan presented by the country's military government in July. “This is a special kind of justice whose like humanity has never seen before," he added.

“We’ve turned into the world’s laughingstock,” added a surfer on the website of the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.

“There was no such thing even during the time of the Jahiliyyah,” commented another surfer, referring to the pagan era before Islam’s founding. He proposed “executing the judge himself.”

Of course, there were also surfers who supported the ruling by Judge Said Yusuf Sabri, declaring that “this is the appropriate price for terrorists [to pay].” But it’s doubtful that anyone in Egypt believes this bizarre sentence will actually be carried out.

The verdict has been passed on for approval to the mufti of Egypt, who by law must grant religious authorization for every execution. But even a cursory examination of the trial – which consisted of two short courtroom sessions with no witnesses, in which the lawyers weren’t allowed to present their arguments properly – is enough to conclude that an appeals court will make short shrift of the case.

To this one should add Sabri’s "judicial" history: In January, he sentenced one man who stole woman’s clothing from a store to 30 years in prison, and another man to 15 years for sexual harassment (despite the fact that even Egyptian women’s organizations are seeking enactment of a law setting a maximum sentence of 10 years for such a crime). But the mufti freed all those convicted of murdering demonstrators in Beni Suef during the January 2011 revolution, including the local police commander and three aides.

Aside from the legal problems with the latest ruling, however, such a decision also embarrasses Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who plans to officially announce his candidacy for president Wednesday or Thursday. Despite the uncompromising war he is waging against the Muslim Brotherhood – which includes arrests, assassinations of “wanted men,” and widespread publicity about the arms and ammunition that are being discovered in the hands of Brotherhood activists night and day – Sissi doesn’t want to be portrayed as a mass murderer of civilians. He prefers to liquidate those whom he defines as terrorists, whether in Cairo or in Sinai, in the field rather than in the courts, and especially not by means of an oddball judge whose verdict is already making waves among human rights organizations in Egypt.

It’s clear to Sissi that even hinting at an intention of carrying out the sentence would result in unprecedented international pressure on Cairo, and paint his regime as a close relative of that of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Indeed, the general is already feeling the international community’s pressure, and especially that of the United States, due to his inability to obtain the F-16s, Apache helicopters and tanks that Egypt was supposed to receive as part of its annual U.S. military aid. The main reason for this is Congressional opposition to giving assistance to a government that is seen as having taken power in a military coup – although U.S. President Barack Obama himself has refrained from officially defining the military’s ascension to power as such.

Recently, 27 United Nations member states issued a statement condemning the human rights situation in Egypt, where most of the revolution’s leading activists (those who aren’t connected to the Muslim Brotherhood) are either in jail or barred from leaving the country. The European Union has also criticized the conduct of the military government, which currently justifies every arrest of an activist as part of its “war on terror.”

The release from jail of protest activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, who, together with his wife Manal Hassan, established “Manal and Alaa’s blog” in 2005, is admittedly a hopeful sign for devotees of freedom of expression. But Abd El Fattah was originally arrested by the army on charges of “organizing an illegal demonstration and clashing with security personnel,” under a new law that has sparked fierce opposition among revolutionary activists. These are the kind of accusations the army makes against liberals who criticize the military government in much the same way as they criticized the Muslim Brotherhood’s totalitarian regime.

Arrests and trials of this sort, even if the suspects are later released on bail or their indictments are withdrawn, define the narrow limits within which they will be able to operate in the future, and attest to Sisi’s constricted interpretation of the new constitution. Granted, several articles in that document bolster human rights, but in practice, those rights will depend on how these articles are interpreted.