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.

Michael Nagle / Stringer / Getty
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Let's use words not weapons to defeat Islamic State, says Syrian journalist

A group of citizen journalists who report on life inside Raqqa won recognition at the British Journalism Awards.

On Tuesday night, Abdalaziz Alhamza, from the Syrian campaign organisation Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), received the prestigious Marie Colvin Award at the British Journalism Awards on behalf of the group.

RBSS has been reporting from the northern Syrian city, Islamic State's de facto capital, since 2014 on the violence carried out both by the extremist group and the regime of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The independent organisation comprises 18 journalists based in Raqqa who are supported by 10 more journalists, who publish and translate their findings between Arabic and English, and help their reports reach a wider global audience. The RBSS Twitter feed has almost 70,000 followers, and their Facebook page has over 560,000 likes, marking them as a major news source for the area.

The creation of the group came as a reaction to the heavy stifling of media from within Syria, and aims to “shed light on the overlooking of these atrocities by all parties”, according to their website. Often, posts track the presence of Assad and IS forces in and around the city. Their news reports show the raids and deaths happening within the city, the impact of the ever-diminishing medical supplies and information about recent IS killings. Alongside these are posts which have a civilian-focus, giving voice to the people who are living inside Raqqa, such as local shopkeepers.

Speaking at the British Journalism Awards on Tuesday, Alhamza said: “In 2014, we realised two important things: the first is that the outside world was not going to help us, and the second is that we had to do something. Anything. So we created RBSS.”

Alhamza further explained the campaign group's aims: 

“Our goal was not only to expose IS criminality, but also to resist them. We did that by capturing and distributing images and videos of life in Raqqa under IS.”

“My colleagues and I never thought or even could imagine the level of suffering our people has been subjected to in the last five years. We learned the hard way that freedom doesn’t come cheap.”

“The scenes of extreme violence and humiliation the group visited on our city’s people. We wanted to make sure the world – even if it wasn’t going to help us – knew what was going on.

Though constantly living under threat, Alhamza’s speech last night showed the pride and importance that RBSS place on publishing the horrors of daily life within Syria.

“Our work shows that we can fight arms with words, and that ultimately is the only way to defeat them, and IS knows it.