It was not just the numbers that shocked the world but the manner in which it was done, when Judge Saeed Yusuf Al-Jazzar took just two sittings to sentence 529 Egyptians to death. Those convicted were accused of participating in a demonstration in Al-Minya province in August 2013, which led to the death of a police officer. They were protesting against the massacre of hundreds of fellow citizens days before in Cairo’s Raba’a Al-Adawiyyah Square. Lawyers for their defence were barred from entering the court, let alone making a plea on their behalf. Whether or not the death sentences are upheld or commuted to life imprisonment, this ruling has set Egypt firmly on a course of lawlessness and self-destruction.
With the exception of the Stalinist, Nazi and Khmer Rouge regimes, there are no examples of such rulings in modern history. Field Marshall Al-Sisi and his aides have thus joined the ranks of infamous tyrants.
Judge Al-Jazzar, whose name, ironically, means “the butcher” in Arabic, acquitted the director of security and a police officer on 15 January last year, both of whom were accused of killing 25 protesters in Bani Suwayf. If there is anything called justice in today’s Egypt it is clearly reserved for the remnants of the former Mubarak regime, the military and security apparatus. It is definitely not for ordinary citizens.
Three conclusions can be drawn from the summary judgement handed down in Al-Minya: that it has driven the final nail into the coffin of Egypt’s criminal justice system; that human rights are only for those who support the 3 July coup; and that the undeclared purpose is to remove all opposition before the Field Marshall completes his seizure of power in next month’s presidential election.
Apart from its callous disregard for internationally-recognised standards of law, the ruling speaks volumes about the decadence that pervades Egyptian public life. In other ways it also exposes the depth of insecurity and paranoia that has taken hold of the regime. Since its seizure of power, the military has failed to stabilise the country and create a climate for economic recovery.
This latest travesty can only undermine further all efforts for national reconciliation. At best, it will, instead, reinforce the very divisions and polarisation which Al-Sisi himself promised to alleviate.
For ordinary Egyptians the political aim of the court ruling is as clear as its legal invalidity. Many believe that it is intended primarily to silence and terrify opponents of the regime, and, by so doing, clear the way for the enthronement of Field Marshall Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi as president of the republic.
None of this, however, will end Al-Sisi’s nightmare, for he cannot envisage himself being president while Mohamed Morsi and the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood are imprisoned. They may be physically absent from the political arena but their presence is felt in every calculation the would-be president makes. Hence, the emerging view is that the death sentence handed down on the 529 protesters is actually intended to prepare the ground for a similar verdict against Morsi, in particular, and the senior leadership of the Brotherhood in general.
Either way, Al-Sisi emerges from this scandal looking considerably weaker, despite having all the instruments of state repression at his disposal. His perversion and use of the criminal justice system to bludgeon political opponents wipes out the “strong man” image that the Egyptian media often ascribe to him. He is, in reality, weak and insecure.
Whether the sentences are carried out, in what manner, and how soon, all appear to be in the hands of Al-Sisi. Indeed, many believe that Judge Al-Jazzar could not have issued such a sentence in such a manner without the highest approval. Even if he chooses to commute the sentences and use the victims as scapegoats to blackmail the opposition, the horses have already bolted. No state, rich or poor, can enjoy social concord and stability in the face of such unbridled injustice. Egypt is no exception and as such can only slide further into the abyss of civil strife.
Even by the ghastly standards of Egyptian persecution the capital punishment for 529 people in one ruling is without precedent. None of the military courts that were established by General Gamal Abdul Nasser in his campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood ever issued such a grotesque verdict. That a civilian court should now do it leaves one in no doubt about the depth of the corruption within which the judiciary has plunged itself.
Many parties, local, regional and international, have played a role in creating the unfortunate crisis in Egypt. They were all driven by a combination of ideological prejudice, political short-sightedness and utter disregard for the rule of law. By subverting the will of the Egyptian people they have broken Egyptian society and history will forever hold them all responsible.