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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How to end the Gulf stand off? The West should tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy

Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon on the unfolding crisis in the Gulf. 

Only one group stands to benefit from a continuation of the crisis in Gulf: The Quartet, as they are now being called. Last week, The United Arab Emirates foreign minister tweeted that Qatar and its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbours are heading for a "long estrangement". We should take him at his word.

The European political establishment has been quick to dismiss the boycott by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt as naïve, and a strategic mistake. The received wisdom now is that they have acted impulsively, and that any payoff will be inescapably pyrrhic. I’m not so sure.

Another view: Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's foreign minister, was in the region over the weekend to see if he could relay some of his boss’s diplomatic momentum. He has offered to help mediate with Kuwait, clearly in the belief that this is the perfect opportunity to elevate France back to the top table. But if President Emmanuel Macron thinks this one will be as straightforward as a Donald Trump handshake, he should know that European charm doesn’t function as well in the 45 degree desert heat (even if some people call him the Sun King).

Western mediation has so far proceeded on the assumption that both sides privately know they will suffer if this conflict drags on. The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson judged that a Qatari commitment to further counter-terrorism measures might provide sufficient justification for a noble reversal. But he perhaps underestimates the seriousness of the challenge being made to Qatar. This is not some poorly-judged attempt to steal a quick diplomatic win over an inferior neighbour.

Qatar’s foreign policy is of direct and existential concern to the other governments in the Gulf. They will not let Qatar off the hook. And even more than that, why should they? Qatar has enormous diplomatic and commercial clout for its size, but that would evaporate in an instant if companies and governments were forced to choose between Doha and the Quartet, whose combined GDP is almost ten times that of their former ally. Iran, Turkey and Russia might stay on side. But Qatar would lose the US and Europe, where most of its soft power has been developed. Qatar’s success has been dependent on its ability to play both sides. If it loses that privilege, as it would in the event of an interminable cold war in the Gulf, then the curtains could come down.

Which is why, if they wanted to badly enough, Le Drian and Tillerson could end this conflict tomorrow. Qatar’s foreign policy has been concerning for the past decade. It has backed virtually every losing side in the Arab world, and caused a significant amount of destruction in the process. In Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, Qatar has turned a blind eye to the funding of Islamic revolutionaries with the financial muscle to topple incumbent regimes. Its motives are clear; influence over the emergent republics, as it had in Egypt for a year under Mohamed Morsi. But as we review the success of this policy from the perspective of 2017, it seems clear that all that has been achieved is a combination of civil unrest and civil war. The experiment has failed.

Moreover, the Coalition is not going to lift sanctions until Doha suspends its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. When Western leaders survey the Gulf and consider who they should support, they observe two things: firstly, that the foreign policy of the Quartet is much more aligned with their own (it doesn’t seem likely to me that any European or American company would prefer to see a revolution in Dubai instead of a continuation of the present arrangement), and secondly, that Qatar would fold immediately if they applied any significant pressure. The Al Thani ruling family has bet its fortune and power on trans-Atlantic support; it is simply not credible that they would turn to the West’s enemies in the event that an ultimatum was issued. Doha might even welcome an excuse to pause its costly and ineffective programmes. Even if that involves some short term embarrassment. It is hardly going to lose support at home, with the highest GDP per capita in the world.

It would be necessary to make sure that the Coalition understands that it will have to pay a price for decisive Western intervention. The world will be a more dangerous place if our allies get the impression they can freely bully any smaller rival, knowing that the West will always come down on their side. That is however no great hurdle to action; it might even be a positive thing if we can at the same time negotiate greater contributions to counter-terrorism or refugee funding.

Unfortunately the reason why none of this is likely to happen is partly that the West has lost a lot of confidence in its ability to resolve issues in the Middle East since 2003, and partly because it fears for its interests in Doha and the handsome Qatari contributions in Western capitals. This cautious assessment is wrong and will be more harmful to Qatar and the aforementioned interests. The Quartet has no incentive to relent, it can’t afford to and will profit from commercial uncertainty in Doha the longer this drags on. If the West really wants this to end now, it must tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy or face sanctions from a more threatening ally.

Geoffrey Hoon was the UK defence secretary from 1999 to 2005.