Egyptian security forces monitor the streets in the southern city of Minya on April 28, 2014, after a court sentenced 682 alleged Islamists and a Muslim Brotherhood leader to death. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The UK must stand against Egypt's disregard of human rights

The mass death penalties and the wider crackdown on the opposition cannot be tolerated.

Last month, 528 supporters of former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi were sentenced to death. This rightly brought widespread condemnation by international observers, including the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay. Most of the death sentences have now been commuted but worryingly, 37 of the death sentences remain in place.

Then the world was shocked by a second round of mass death penalties - to 683 Muslim Brotherhood supporters, including Mohamed Badie, one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders. Again, the decision and the subsequent judicial procedures leading to them are being widely condemned by international observers and human rights monitors and are confirming negative perceptions of the path Egypt appears to be taking.

Egypt is a pivotal state in the Middle East. Regional, and indeed global security, depends on being able to uphold stability, democracy and human rights in this country, home to one of the most ancient civilisations, with a population of 90 million people at the heart of the Arab world.

Last year’s removal of its first elected president, precipitated by massive street protests, has initiated a process of agreeing a new, generally praised constitution. At the end of this month, a presidential election takes place between Hamdeen Sabbahi, a Nasserist who came third in the 2012 presidential election, and the former general, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the hero of the movement that deposed Morsi, and who is widely expected to win.

However, an election alone does not establish a democracy. Parallel to the progress towards a new election, repeated negative steps have been taken by the interim Egyptian administration which have created obstacles on the path to democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood, home to the Freedom of Justice Party of Morsi, has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation. Al Jazeera journalists, Egyptian and from overseas, have been arrested, imprisoned and tried over a period of many months.

This latest crackdown on opposition is another step back from the democratic future that Egyptian people both deserve, and have fought so hard to secure. What Egypt needs now is wise leadership from its new president, whoever that may be, reaching out to try to create consensus, an essential precondition of the type of political reconciliation which is needed to stabilise its deeply wounded economy.

The new, inclusive constitution for Egypt, properly implemented, can provide a useful starting point for the country. However, political will is required to ensure that values of liberty, free speech and inclusivity are upheld in practice. Egypt has a wide religious and cultural identity which must be respected if a democratic future is to be secured. As Egyptians head to the ballot box on the presidential elections expected on 26 May, presidential candidate Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s comments that the banned Muslim Brotherhood group will “not exist” if he wins the election create real concern. However, the new Egyptian Constitution, overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of Egypt, does, on the other hand, create hope.

The UK government must now make absolutely clear to the Egyptian government that tolerance and upholding of human rights and a fair judicial system are essential in a democratic society. If the British government’s work through its Arab Partnership is to have any real meaning, the next days and weeks will be crucial. Now is the time for the UK, and the international community, to unite to redouble efforts to impress upon the new government of Egypt the importance of open, tolerant debate on the path to a modern, stable, democratic country which is worthy of its unique, historic legacy.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue