A relative of a Muslim Brotherhood supporter sentenced to death in southern Egypt cries outside the courthouse. This is more than a personal tragedy. Photo: Getty.
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Why is Egypt sentencing hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death?

Several Egyptian TV channels yesterday welcomed the sentencing to death of 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in a flawed two-day trial. Are Egyptians sleepwalking into one of the darkest chapters in their recent political history?

Yesterday, a court in the south of Egypt sentenced 529 supporters of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Morsi, to death. According to Amnesty International, this is the largest simultaneous death sentence they have seen in recent years, anywhere in the world. Today, another 682 Muslim Brotherhood supporters are on trial in the same court.

The trial was extremely flawed: the hearing for all 529 men lasted just two days, and defence lawyers were not allowed to present their arguments. The verdict will now need to be approved, or rejected, by Egypt’s supreme religious leader – and it’s not yet certain, whether if he does approve the law, the 529 men will have the right to appeal.

So is the judge Saeed Elgazar acting on a personal grudge against Morsi’s Islamist party, or is he coming under political pressure? This isn’t clear, but what is more evident, and deeply disturbing is that several Egyptian news channels welcomed the verdict. One TV presenter argued yesterday that: “The state cannot meet violence with violence? What should it meet it with? A wedding procession? Ball gowns?” For three years, Egyptian politics seems to have oscilated wildly between mass demonstrations and bloody crackdowns followed by moments of post-revolutionary euphoria. And yet between violence and ball gowns there is very meaningful political ground  if only the interim government would occupy it.    

The TV presenter's response illustrates the extent to which many Egyptians have conflated the Muslim Brotherhood with terrorist organisations – a viewpoint that the army has encouraged. This could in many ways become a self-fulfilling prophecy: many Muslim Brotherhood supporters are religiously conservative but peaceful, but one very effective way of radicalising young Islamists is by killing non-violent Islamist protesters. It's no coincidence that in recent months there has been a noticeable increase in violent attacks on Egyptian military targets.

A large number of Egyptians were happy to see the Muslim Brotherhood removed from power last summer, and with reason – they were concerned by Morsi’s authoritarian tendencies, fed-up with his economic mismanagement and fearful for Egypt’s religious minorities. But this escalation of state-sanctioned violence, with some popular backing, is a deeply disturbing development. The government’s heavy-handed approach to political dissent is extremely short-sighted – but while a significant proportion of the traumatised and revolution-weary population support its bloody methods, there is little to hold the security services back. I fear Egyptians are sleep-walking into one of the darkest chapters of their recent political history.

Once violence becomes the standard political currency, it is very hard to de-escalate. The challenge for Egypt’s post-revolutionary future has always been to find a way the country’s diverse, 80m-strong population to find common political ground – and the best way to do this is through developing democratic norms such as co-operation, compromise and peaceful negotiation.

The interim government’s clampdown on human rights – secular activists are being targeted too – has been more violent and repressive than under Hosni Mubarak.  And yesterday’s verdict is yet another step backwards. The sentencing to death of 529 people yesterday is a personal tragedy for the prisoners and their families, but although not everyone realises it yet, it’s also a tragedy for Egypt. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Locals without borders: governments are using diasporas to shape the migration crisis

Governments of countries key to the migration crisis are tapping diaspora influence more than ever before.

Last month, on 21 June, thousands of Eritreans descended on Geneva and marched across the city, finally stopping at the Place des Nations in front of the UN. The demonstrators had come from across Europe: Italy, Germany, London, and a young man who looked blankly at my French and English questions before exclaiming “Svenska!” (“Swedish!”).

They were here to denounce a recent report by the UN Human Rights Council condemning widespread violations of basic rights in Eritrea. According to the protesters, the report was based on shoddy research and is biased and politically-motivated: “Stop regime change agendas!” said one banner.

Two days later, a similarly sized group of Eritreans marched in the same direction, for the opposite reason. This contingent, 10,000-strong according to the organisers, wanted to show their backing for the report, which highlights many of the problems that led them to leave the Horn of Africa in the first place. Forced conscription, extrajudicial killings, and official impunity, all pinpointed by the UN inquiry, have driven a mass exodus to the surrounding region and beyond. In 2015 alone, 47,025 Eritreans crossed the Mediterranean to request asylum in Europe.

Two things stood out. First was the sharp polarisation of the Eritrean diaspora community in Europe, which muddies the waters for outsiders trying to make sense of the situation: how can one side say everything is fine while the other claims massive abuses of rights?

Second was the sheer engagement of this diaspora, some of whom may never have set foot in Eritrea. They had come from across Europe, with or without the help of funding, to stand on a rainy square and fight for the narrative of their nation.

As an Irishman abroad, would I have the commitment to jump on a plane for a political protest with no certain outcome? I probably wouldn’t, but then again my country is not just 25 years old and still struggling to define itself on the international stage.

Individual stakes are also much higher for people like Abraham, an Eritrean in Switzerland who told me how he was forced into the army for seven years before managing to escape via Sudan two years ago. With two children still in Asmara, he has significant skin in the game.

As for the naysayers, they are also under certain pressure. Some reports suggest that the government in Asmara exercises extensive power in certain diaspora circles, threatening to cancel the citizenship of those who denounce the regime or refuse to pay 2 per cent income tax each year.

Ultimately, such a situation can only lead to a committed kind of polarisation where pro-government supporters need to publicly demonstrate their backing, and the anti-government kind have nothing left to lose.

But on a more benign level, the idea of states systematically harnessing the power of the diaspora for domestic gains has also been growing elsewhere – including in Ireland. Historically a nation of emigrants, Ireland has seen its diaspora swell even further following the economic downturn: OECD figures estimate that one in six Irish-born people now live abroad.

In an age of networks and soft power, this represents a sizeable demographic, and a well-educated and well-off one to boot. The government has clearly recognized this. In 2009, the first Global Irish Economic Forum was held to tap into the business know-how of expats, and has since taken place biannually.

More importantly, two years ago the first Minister for the Diaspora was appointed, tasked with taking overall charge of engagement efforts: no longer simply cultural ambassadors operating Irish bars abroad, emigrants are economic and political seeds to be cultivated. A referendum is planned next year on whether to grant them the right to vote from abroad in presidential elections.

Elsewhere, in Germany, the 3m-strong Turkish population has attracted renewed interest from the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years. According to a 2014 paper by think tank SWP, Ankara now explicitly designates these Turks abroad as a “diaspora” rather than a scattered group, and adopts clear public diplomacy efforts, channelled through cultural centres, to tap their influence.

This has sometimes rankled in Berlin: although Ankara’s diaspora policy encourages citizens to learn German and integrate into German society, the underlying motivation is one of Turkish self-interest rather than benign assimilation. In a battle for the front-foot, German immigration policy clashes with Turkish emigration policy.

Intra-EU movements, largely unhampered by visa questions, have also become substantial enough to warrant attention. For example, hit hard by the economic downturn and austerity measures, many educated Spaniards and Portuguese have flocked to Northern European cities to seek employment.

London, a melting pot of diasporas from all over the world, is reportedly home to more French people than Bordeaux: together they would make up the sixth largest city in France. As countries continue to rebuild following the financial crisis, forging a connection to the skills and political power of such emigrants is a policy imperative.

And if no other EU country, aside from Ireland, has introduced a dedicated minister for this, the growing economic potentials may spur them to do so.

Diasporas have been around for millennia. Why are governments getting so interested now? And what does it mean for the future of citizenship, nationality, and identity?

Technology is one obvious game-changer. Diasporas not only have more options to keep in touch with their home country, but with so much of daily life now happening on virtual platforms, they also have less reason to integrate in their host society.

It is now almost feasible to ignore the surrounding communities and live quite comfortably in a bubble of media and connections from back home. This then works both ways, with governments increasingly willing to use such communications to maintain links. The “imagined spaces” of nations are morphing into “virtual spaces”, with unpredictable consequences for traditional models of integration.

Marco Funk, a researcher at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Brussels, says that the growing ease of mobility compounds the idea of “people moving from one country to another and staying there” as simply out-of-date.

The coming years, he says, will be marked by patterns of “circular migration”, where citizens hop from one country to another as whim and economic opportunity arise. Governments, especially in an increasingly stagnant Europe, will likely try to beef up links with this mobile generation, especially since it is often pulled from the more educated classes.

Fearing a “brain drain”, yet unable to keep the talent at home, they may foster a more fluid system of “brain exchange”: the diaspora as a mobile resource rather than physical loss.

Of course, none of this will be straightforward, especially at a time when a major fault-line around the world is the future of globalisation and migration. An uptick in nationalist tendencies may mean that diasporas will find themselves (once again) unwilling pawns on a political chessboard, protected or manipulated by governments back home while scapegoated by segments of their host societies.

But one thing is sure: even as walls are rebuilt, diasporas will not disappear, and governments are recognising their power. All politics may remain local, but the local now knows no bounds.