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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The first godless US election

America’s evangelical right has chosen Donald Trump, who hardly even pays lip service to having faith.

There has never been an openly non-Christian president of the United States. There has never been an openly atheist senator. God, seemingly, is a rock-solid prerequisite for American political life.

Or it was, until this year.

Early in the 2016 primaries, preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum – both darlings of the evangelical far right – fell by the wayside. So did Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the son of a preacher.

Ted Cruz, once the Republican race had thinned, tried to present himself as the last godly man, but was roundly beaten – even among evangelicals – by Donald Trump, a man whose lip service to religion was so cursory as to verge on satire.

Trump may have claimed in a televised debate that “nobody reads the Bible more than me”, but he demurred when pressed to name even a verse he liked. His pronouncements show a lack of any knowledge or interest in faith and its tenets; he once called a communion wafer his “little cracker”.

The boorish Trump is a man at whose megalomaniacal pronouncements any half-hearted glance reveals a belief in, if any god at all, only the one he sees in a mirror. The national exercise in cognitive dissonance required for America’s religious rightwingers to convince themselves that he’s a candidate with whom they have anything in common is truly staggering.

But evangelicals don’t seem troubled. In the March primary in Florida, Trump carried 49 per cent of the evangelical vote. He won Mississippi, a state where fully three-quarters of Republican primary voters are white evangelicals.

In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish candidate ever to win a presidential primary – though he has barely once spoken about his faith – and Hillary Clinton has spoken about god on the campaign trail only occasionally, without receiving much media play. In fact, when the question of faith came up at one Democratic debate there was a backlash against CNN for even asking.

The truth is that Christian faith as a requisite for political power has drooped into a kind of virtue-signalling: the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” bumper-sticker; the crucifix tattoo; the meme on social media about footprints in the sand. It is about identity politics, tribal politics, me-and-mine versus you-and-yours politics, but it hasn’t really been about faith for a while.

What the hell happened?

Partly, there was a demographic shift. “Unaffiliated” is by far the fastest-growing religious category in the US, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, which also showed that the total proportion of Americans who define as Christian dropped almost 9 percentage points between 2007 and 2014.

There is no doubt that America is still a fairly devout nation compared with the UK, but the political mythos that developed around its Christianity is a relatively late invention. The words “under god” were only implanted into the pledge of allegiance – between the words “one nation” and “indivisible” – in 1954, by President Eisenhower.

The ascendance of the political power of the Christian right in America happened in 1979, when a televangelist called Jerry Falwell founded a pressure group called Moral Majority.

Moral Majority’s support for Ronald Reagan was widely credited for his victory in the 1980 election, which in turn secured for them a position at the top table of Republican politics. For three decades, the Christian right was the single most important voting bloc in America.

But its power has been waning for a decade, and there are greater priorities in the American national psyche now.

Trump’s greatest asset throughout the primary was what makes his religiosity or lack thereof immaterial: his authenticity. His lack of a filter, his ability to wriggle free from gaffes which would have felled any other candidate with a simple shrug. This is what not just religious voters, but all of the Republican voting base were waiting for: someone who isn’t pandering, who hasn’t focus-grouped what they want to hear.

They don’t care that he may or may not truly share their belief in god. Almost all voters in this election cycle – including evangelicals, polling suggests – prioritise the economy over values anyway.

On top of that, the Christian right is facing the beginnings of an insurgency from within its own ranks; a paradigm shift in conservatism. A new culture war is beginning, fought by the alt-right, a movement whelped on anarchic message boards like 4chan, whose philosophical instincts lean towards the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist, and to whom the antique bloviation of Christian morality politics means nothing.

Trump doesn’t pander, an approach only made possible by social media, which amplifies his voice six millionfold while simultaneously circumventing the old establishment constructs – like the media – which had previously acted as gatekeepers to power.

The Christian right – now personified in Jerry Falwell Jr and Liberty University, which Falwell senior founded in the Seventies – found itself another of those constructs. They were forced to choose: jump on board the Trump Train or be left behind.

They chose Trump.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.