It was the kind of mass death sentence that seems to come from another time and place. But the news on Monday that an Egyptian judge had handed down a verdict condemning 529 people to execution was all too real, even as the particulars of the case, the trial and the public reaction all conjured a sense of what could be called Egypt’s current brand of magical realism. In the end, Judge Saeed Elgazar’s gesture was at once brutal, tragic, absurd — and most likely futile.
International censure immediately followed — not just because of the verdict’s severity, but because due process was so thoroughly ignored: Defense lawyers were barred from meeting their clients or cross-examining witnesses, and many were later escorted from the court under the judge’s orders.
The condemned are accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-banned Islamist group that ruled Egypt until nine months ago, and which the current government has declared a terrorist organization. Prosecutors say these convicted people all attacked a police station in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya last August, killing an officer and stealing weapons. Television stations have aired footage allegedly showing a wounded policeman being given medical assistance after the attack, surrounded by a crowd. According to defense lawyers, however, no such evidence was presented in court.
Few here in Egypt believe the verdict will hold. If it is not struck down on appeal, it is likely to be commuted by either the president or the grand mufti. That only makes Judge Elgazar’s gesture more theatrical and empty. The trial and its aftermath reveal the fault lines in Egypt’s escalating crackdown against political opposition that may yet provoke a stinging response from the very forces it was meant to eliminate.
Since President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown on July 3, at least 16,000 people have been arrested, and reports of abuse in custody have surged. Political trials have been riddled with due process violations, and rights groups point to arbitrary prosecutions. The Brotherhood has been the main target of the state’s wrath, but accusations of involvement have metastasized beyond those who actually are affiliated with the group to anyone who can usefully be painted as a supporter or sympathizer.
There are ominous parallels between all these cases. I have been attending the trial of the three Al Jazeera English journalists who have been accused of sympathizing with the Brotherhood in their reporting, and on Monday they also returned to court, where they stood in a caged dock. They may not face a death sentence, but long jail terms are a distinct possibility. The same goes for secular dissenters who challenge the new authorities, and who are often rounded up after street protests that are deemed “unofficial” and thus against the law.
Some local commentators say that the Minya verdict is an example of “telephone justice” — a decision phoned through from above. But it’s not even necessary to assume interference when the Egyptian state’s military-backed executive, deeply conservative judiciary and resurgent security forces act in a complementary manner with the aims of restoring stability, consolidating power and exacting revenge for previous perceived transgressions.
But these attempts at establishing order and control have succeeded only in fostering their very opposite. On Aug. 14, in the wake of the military coup, riot police officers violently dispersed an encampment of Morsi supporters in east Cairo, killing an estimated 900 people and catalyzing more violence nationwide. The police station attack at the center of Monday’s trial took place during that chaos.
The discrepancy between the treatment of the security officials responsible for a death toll 900 times higher than the one the Minya defendants were charged with has not gone unnoticed. Amnesty International called the death verdicts “grotesque.” Mohamed Zaree, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said the sentence was a “legal massacre.”
But among many locals, such condemnations are often perceived as evidence that the international community has abandoned Egypt in favor of defending the Brotherhood, which many believe is responsible for deadly attacks on security installations and personnel. There is little evidence to suggest that these attacks have been led by the Brotherhood; they have been claimed by a group linked to Al Qaeda.
Yet perceptions matter, and the popular desire for stability often means supporting, or at least accepting, lethal violence and a battered rule of law. Regardless of the outcome for the 529 condemned to death, for many the sentences confirm the belief that the Brotherhood is to be shunned, and certainly not defended. “We are tired of your violence,” said the television anchor Rania Badawi on Monday night, addressing the Brotherhood during a segment on the privately owned Tahrir Channel in which she interviewed the wife of the policeman killed in Minya. “We will build the country despite your war.”
As polarization leads to dehumanization on both sides, the potential builds for further flare-ups. On Wednesday, hundreds were involved in an enraged protest at Cairo University over the Minya verdict in which the crowd was tear-gassed and one person was killed.
In portraying ordinary citizens as enemies of the state, the government risks alienating the public. When each side means very different things by responsibility and accountability, this civil conflict cannot be won with violent acts — by the isolated judiciary, an increasingly angry Islamist movement, or the police. Unless a reinvigorated center emerges to steer Egypt toward a more inclusive political process, extremists both within the state and on the fringes will continue to lash out with gestures ever more violent, ever more empty.
Louisa Loveluck is the Egypt correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.