By Khaled Diab
Wednesday 27 May 2015
It may well go down in history as Egypt’s show trial of the century – one that is not only unjust but also positively Kafkaesque in its absurdity and self-defeating surrealism.
Egypt’s former president Mohamed Morsi, along with 105 co-defendants, has been sentenced to death for a prison break during the upheavals of the 2011 revolution. On the ethical level, this trial is a travesty because Morsi did not enjoy due process in a highly politicised trial which Amnesty International described as “grossly unfair” and “a charade based on null and void procedures”.
In addition, as a long-standing opponent of capital punishment, I find the reckless abandon with which Egyptian courts have been handing out death sentences to hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters both wrong and highly troubling. And this is occurring just when Egypt seemed to be a country on the road to phasing out capital punishment.
The fact that a handful of the hundreds on death row have been executed may indicate that Morsi will never actually be put to death. However, even life in prison without first going through a fair trial before an impartial court would be an inhumane and profound injustice.
Beyond issues of ethics and morality, Morsi’s sentence – the most symbolic of the recent persecution of the Brotherhood which has seen hundreds of protesters killed and thousands of supporters thrown behind bars, not to mention legion secular activists – could possibly push the situation in Egypt over the edge.
Within hours of the verdict, reports emerged that three judges were shot dead in the Sinai, possibly in connection with the trial. And just as Morsi’s ouster escalated the insurgency in the desert peninsula, his death sentence is likely to play a similar role, not just in Sinai but also on the Egyptian mainland.
And the tragedy of the situation is that it need not have been so. In fact, the past two years have been a veritable comedy of terrors in Egypt.
Morsi’s dictatorial grab for power which began in November 2012, his knack for losing friends and whipping up popular disapproval, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood’s colossal incompetence and mismanagement of the country meant that the movement which had made successive governments quake for some eight decades had lost its political legitimacy and become a spent force.
Instead of giving Morsi a 48-hour ultimatum following the huge protests of 30 June 2013, had the military steered the country towards early elections, much of the subsequent blood and tears could have been avoided.
However, the Egyptian military decided to follow the path of greatest resistance. After Morsi’s ouster, the al-Sisi regime used oppression and persecution where magnanimity and reconciliation would have been far more effective.
Rather than finish off the movement, the regime’s myopic and bloody purge – which included the deadly dispersals of largely peaceful sit-ins, mass arrests, trials in kangaroo courts and the outlawing of the Brotherhood – has strengthened and radicalised what remains of the Muslim Brotherhood, and possibly won it back some of the public sympathy it has lost.
It has also sent out a message to many Islamists that the political process is not for them and that peaceful change through democracy will not occur. The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to renounce violence in the 1970s was a controversial one – which led to violent splinter groups being formed – but the movement’s successful use of its soft power silenced many of its Islamist critics and even drew in new and unlikely supporters when the persecution of Egypt’s secular dissidents left it as the main opposition movement. A significant percentage of these supporters will now likely follow the path of political violence, convinced that the secular state is irredeemably “evil” and “un-Islamic”.
After their disastrous year in power and given their theological basis, I do not entertain delusions, like some do, regarding the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy. Like far-right movements in Europe, the Brotherhood’s leadership saw the democratic process not as a tool for the peaceful transfer of power but as a drawbridge leading into the palace which they would slam firmly shut afterwards.
But the Brotherhood’s antidemocratic tendencies are no excuse to persecute and demonise the movement. Having it involved in the political process is far better than turning its members into social pariahs and outcasts who, with nothing left to lose, may prove willing to lose everything.
But, sadly, in Egypt’s zero-sum political culture, there is far too much of a winner-takes-all mentality. Following Mubarak’s removal from power, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) brutally clung on to power for as long as it took to load the dice in its favour, especially when it came to the protection of its huge economic fiefdom. The army had hoped that going through the motions of “democratisation” would lead to the emergence of a toothless parliament and lame duck president which, like in the Turkey of yesteryear, could be controlled from behind the scenes.
Instead of playing ball, the Muslim Brotherhood set their own power grab in motion, with Morsi ironically appointing al-Sisi to head up SCAF because he apparently believed he was sympathetic to their cause and was junior and inexperienced enough to dominate and control. When Morsi started ruling by presidential decree, this not only made him hugely unpopular across Egypt but also set him on a collision course with the army.
The military saw Morsi’s grand failures and mounting opposition to his rule as its ticket to return visibly to the driver’s seat. Buoyed by ephemeral popularity, the al-Sisi regime has massively overplayed its hand. Egypt has seen a tidal wave of state violence and oppression, not just of the Brotherhood but also of the secular opposition.
This manic exercise of state power has seen Sisimania wane considerably. This is reflected in how al-Sisi is no longer the media darling he was before gaining office. Despite massive crackdowns on the press, voices of dissent and criticism are rising once again in the media, with some even calling for early elections.
With the state’s machinery of repression working at full throttle, al-Sisi’s regime is faced with stark choices: either follow al-Assad’s path and possibly push the country into the abyss, or follow Tunisia’s path of reconciliation, consensus politics and democratisation.
This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 17 May 2015.