28 March 2014
Claire Spencer

Dr Claire Spencer

Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative


Activists gather in front of Cairo University to protest against 528 Morsi supporters condemned to death March 26, 2014 Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Ahmed Taranh/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Activists gather in front of Cairo University to protest after 528 Morsi supporters were condemned to death, March 26 2014 Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Ahmed Taranh/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.


‘Draconian’ and ‘unprecedented’ are some of the milder epithets being used to describe this week’s death sentences passed on 529 defendants in the Egyptian city of Minya, following court hearings that lasted barely two days. Amidst a series of charges for public order offences and damage to public property, the Muslim Brotherhood defendants’ main alleged crime was the killing of a single policeman, whose widow subsequently claimed that the 2-3 people responsible for her husband’s death were not even in court. International lawyers observed that this was the highest tally of death sentences ever served at once in Egypt, after proceedings that could not conceivably have conformed to international standards of justice.

This sits uncomfortably with the line of argument currently being deployed by the interim Egyptian government  that they are leading the country back to normality following the disastrous year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, brought to an abrupt end in July last year. In a ‘political transition’ headed by a number of self-styled liberals, the unprecedentedly heavy crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has been engineered by Egypt’s  combined security establishment and widely applauded by much of the business elite who held sway in the period prior to the uprisings of 2011. With financial backing from the Gulf in place since last summer, Egypt’s resurgent business community is now encouraging inward investment, while the army is cooperating with its Israeli counterparts to rid the Sinai Peninsula of the jihadists so laxly controlled – intentionally so, according to the official script – by the erstwhile Muslim Brotherhood government.

The final piece in the normalization jigsaw will be seen in the election to the presidency of Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi later this year. With his poster now on every spare wall, he is the hero of the hour in having directed the army to unseat the Brotherhood-backed president Mohamed Morsi at the request of crowds who took to the streets on 30 June 2013 after petitioning for Morsi’s removal. This week al-Sisi resigned his military command in order to clear the way for his candidacy as a civilian.

Only three years ago, many outsiders were convinced that Egypt’s political conscience had finally awoken in the lengthy scenes transmitted globally from Tahrir Square and the cities of Alexandria and Port Said and beyond. What they now find hard to grasp is how swiftly populism has taken over Egyptians’ erstwhile desire for democracy, and how widely shared among even the most urbane of Egyptians the official version of events now is. Egypt’s heavily controlled and enthusiastic national media, both public and private, deserves much of the credit for having prepared the ground for the return of a ‘strong man’ (al-Sisi) to take over the helm of a ship sinking in economic as well as political terms since 2011. The people, it seems, now want predictability and the promise of prosperity – or at very least, a government-sponsored job or two – not accountable government or the rule of law.

Anyone who suggests that this might be a short-sighted route towards an authoritarianism surpassing anything seen under the 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule is roundly rebutted. What outsiders – and the British and Americans above all, we are told – have profoundly misunderstood is the existential threat posed to Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood and their region-wide ilk. Even the most apparently sophisticated of ‘liberals’ speak of the ‘terrorist and ‘fascist’ strategies being deployed by the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood to take over the state. In their view, Brotherhood supporters thus deserve what they get, wholesale death penalties included.

The virulence of this defence has proved both astonishing and confusing to external audiences, when even official reports confirm that 16,000 detainees remain in prison awaiting trial. These include the supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, whose trial alongside another 682 Muslim Brothers has just been postponed until the end of April. Detainees also consist of journalists and young democracy activists with no links to the Brotherhood, caught up in the overall cull of dissenters from the ‘normalization’ path over the past nine months. Violence against women has also risen exponentially, including at the hands of the security forces, their actions apparently condoned and justified by the attacks launched by Brotherhood activists against military and civilian targets alike.

Common sense suggests that the current authorities cannot feasibly be thinking that the Muslim Brotherhood can be eradicated once and for all. Since its creation in 1928, the movement has suffered a number of witch-hunts and crack-downs, only to bounce back from its largely inner-urban and grass-roots social base. 

Egyptians may have fallen profoundly out of love with the mismanaged draconian and obstructionist dictates of the Morsi presidency, which saw its own share of violence. But even after a year in office, the death-toll registered under Morsi’s rule pales in comparison with the estimated 2,500 deaths incurred under ‘liberal’ rule since. The Egyptian model the world now faces is one of liberal economics combined with a distinctly cavalier and selective approach to the defence of human rights and the law. Judging by the low-key responses of ‘shock’ at the death penalty rulings, western policy establishments clearly do not know how to respond.

One explanation for this might be the wider and ongoing shock at the speed of the Egyptian volte-face away from electoral politics to the no-holds-barred vengeance being meted out against the Brotherhood, women and children included. There may also be a pragmatic hope that the death penalties will be ruled unsound when examined by Egypt’s appeal court and the Grand Mufti, who has the last say on the matter. The points repeatedly made by the Egyptian government about the dangers of terrorism may also have struck home, at a time when the West needs the Egyptian military onside to contend with an already destabilized region.

A final reason might be the impotence of knowing that the US and EU are at best bystanders to a situation which financially, at least for now, is under the protection of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, and which has also attracted the attention of Russia in recent months.

The bullishness of Egyptian interlocutors in meetings with their Western counterparts has also been without precedent since last summer. Egyptian officials brook no criticism, nor do they allow the use of ‘off-script’ vocabulary to describe what is happening in their country to pass without comment. The last nail in the colonial coffin may thus be finally being hammered in. Until, that is, this regime, like the last one, can no longer make the sums add up or the economy function, and the next chapter of the drama will start all over again.

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