Relatives of supporters of Mohamed Morsi cry outside the court in Minya, after it ordered the execution of 529 Morsi supporters. Photo: Getty
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Saeed Youssef, the Butcher of Minya

In just four weeks the Egyptian judge has sentenced to death 720 alleged supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood in two mass verdicts.

Saeed Youssef, nicknamed “the Butcher”, has broken world records: in just four weeks this judge has sent 720 people to their deaths in two separate mass verdicts passed in his courtroom in Minya, Upper Egypt. Most recently, on 28 April, he sentenced 683 to death for allegedly killing a policeman in rioting after the July 2013 overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi.

During the eight-minute court sessions he refused to view evidence or listen to witnesses. Instead, bewildered defence lawyers told me, he ordered the security forces to point their guns at the legal team. Some were even forbidden entry to the hearings. “I have yet to make it into the courtroom,” one of the defendants’ lawyers, Ali Mabrouk told me.

More than 16,000 people have been arrested since the  July coup and many of those have been put to trial. Every week hundreds are sentenced, but Youssef is by far the harshest judge.

“The Butcher” gained notoriety when he led Beni Suef Criminal Court, a hundred kilometres south of Cairo, flanked by two assistant judges dubbed “Cut Throat” and “Mr X”. From there in 2013, he acquitted the Beni Suef police chief and ten of his officers of killing protesters during the 2011 uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. There was only one hearing, and neither the prosecution nor the defence team was allowed to present its case, as Mohamed El-Zanaty, a lawyer who has worked in Youssef’s courtrooms, told me. The judge simply wanted the policemen freed.

“For two years, he has been giving the most extreme verdicts we have ever heard of,” El-Zanaty said. He described how Youssef once sentenced a man to 40 years in jail for possessing a gun.

Thanks to this reputation for harsh sentencing, Youssef was promoted to become one of the nine regional “judicial terrorist district” courts, responsible for dealing with attacks on the state.

No one knows if Egypt’s military-installed authorities will carry out the death sentences: in the past three years only one person has been executed in the country. Nevertheless, the latest signs are not promising. In response to international outcry at the death verdicts, Justice Minister Neir Osman stood by the judge and claimed the Egyptian state was being “attacked by people from inside and outside”.

Meanwhile, the cabinet is drafting counterterrorism legislation that may soon help the Butcher in his quest to hang hundreds.

The package of laws will lead to many more death penalty verdicts because its definition of terrorism is so broad that it includes actions which obstruct the work of public officials or institutions, that harm national unity, or that are perceived as “intimidation”, says Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa office. Both Islamist and secular protest groups are fearful.

The politicisation of Egypt’s judiciary is alarming. No one knows if such judges are receiving orders directly from the state or acting on their own. They have clearly positioned themselves on the front line of the government’s mission to stamp out dissent. Yet judges are the guardians of democracy: on 26-27 May they will man polling stations and guard the ballot boxes for the presidential election, a vote that the ex-army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who led last year’s coup, is expected to win. 

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood