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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?

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.

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. 

Tags:Egypt