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.