On August 14th of last year, Egyptian security services violently dispersed two sit-ins by the supporters of the country’s ousted Islamist President, Mohamed Morsi, in Cairo. By the end of the day, more than six hundred people had been killed. In the next three days, violence spread across the country, claiming the lives of sixty-four policemen and another six hundred and twenty-two civilians. These figures come from a recent report by a government-appointed fact-finding committee; the Muslim Brotherhood claims that the number of casualties was even higher.
In southern Egypt, Morsi’s supporters responded to the killings in Cairo by burning churches and attacking police stations. In Matay, in the governorate of Minya, rioters killed the deputy chief of police. On Monday, a court in Minya sentenced five hundred and twenty-nine defendants to death for his murder—all of them described in the state media as terrorist members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
For both the government and the Brotherhood, the killings on August 14th marked a turning point: the beginning of a confrontation in which the true nature of their opponents was revealed. In the eyes of the government and its backers, the Brotherhood—whose supporters fired on police as they cleared the sit-in—showed its terrorist tendencies. For the Islamists, the military-backed government, which had jailed a democratically elected Islamist President and now attacked them with overwhelming force, had demonstrated its true repressive face. Seven months later, many Egyptians would rather not talk about what happened on August 14th, but it is the epicenter from which shock waves of violence continue to radiate.
It was alarming, at the end of the largest mass sentencing in Egypt’s modern history, to see five hundred men held responsible, so expeditiously and so severely, for one murder, when there have been no convictions—in fact, there has not been a criminal investigation—related to the deaths of the twelve hundred civilians killed in August. More than eight hundred protesters died during the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, in 2011; not a single police officer has been convicted for their killings. (Mubarak himself was convicted only of failing to prevent their deaths, and has won the right to a retrial on that charge.) Although cases against senior officials of the Mubarak regime have meandered through postponements and appeals for years now, the verdict in Minya was handed down after two brief sessions. According to Egyptian human-rights organizations that monitored the proceedings, “Witnesses were not called, evidence was not presented in court, and the accused were unable to defend themselves.”
It is unlikely that the sentence will be carried out. A majority of the men found guilty were sentenced in absentia; the defendants who were in custody, and their lawyers, were not even present when the verdict was delivered. If the conviction is not overturned on appeal, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, a government-appointed cleric, must ratify the decision to put the prisoners to death. But his assent does not guarantee that the penalty will be imposed: during the nineteen-nineties, when the state waged a brutal campaign against Islamist militants, some were held for years in prison, with death sentences hanging over their heads, as a kind of leverage. The judgment in Minya may be a similar deadly warning, but it represents something even more significant: it is a sign of how deeply Egypt’s judiciary has been compromised by the government’s onslaught against the Brotherhood.
Mass arrests and mass trials have become key tools in the country’s expanding “war on terrorism.” The same court in Minya is hearing another case, which will resume on April 28th, in which more than six hundred Islamists are charged with the murder of two policemen. On Wednesday, Egypt’s chief prosecutor announced two more mass trials, with a total of nine hundred and nineteen defendants. Many activists have been dragged from their homes to face spurious charges, and an unconstitutional law to ban protests has been passed. Journalists working for Al Jazeera English have been charged with membership in a terrorist organization and with fabricating news to blacken Egypt’s reputation; on Monday, they were once again denied bail. Meanwhile, the show trials of two ex-Presidents, Mubarak and Morsi, are ongoing.
Amid all these legal proceedings, there has been no proper accounting for the abuses of any of Egypt’s regimes. (As the minister for transitional justice—a newly created Cabinet post—explained to an interviewer late last year, “This is not the time for transitional justice.”) Instead, the law has been largely used to beat the losing side into submission. The damage to the beleaguered idea of justice, and to the reputation of the courts, is already immense. Judges see themselves as pillars of the Egyptian state, but, in their zeal to defend it and themselves against an Islamist threat, they are unravelling their country’s already tattered rule of law.
Egypt’s judiciary has long had a reputation for relative independence. Under Mubarak, a minority of judges made valiant attempts to expose and resist political interference. In 2006, when public dissent against Mubarak first broke out, it included the so-called judges’ intifada, in which middle-aged jurists took to the streets to protest pressure from the executive and orders to monitor rigged elections—a protest that the Muslim Brotherhood supported.
But, after the Islamist group came to power, its relationship with the country’s top judges quickly became acrimonious. In June, 2012, the country’s highest constitutional court dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament, elected after Mubarak’s ouster, on a legal technicality. Islamists denounced it as a “judicial coup.” After that, the Muslim Brotherhood and the county’s senior judges maneuvered around one another with growing suspicion, exchanging a flurry of opposing rulings, legal decrees, threats, and accusations. Islamist protesters blockaded the entrances to courthouses to prevent rulings they disagreed with from being handed down. In November, 2012, Morsi issued a Presidential decree that placed his own decisions above legal review—a move that he defended as necessary to protect the revolution from the courts. But his autocratic diktat was the final straw for many judges and citizens. The judiciary was one of several key state institutions that moved in concert to support Morsi’s overthrow last summer.
Most of the many Egyptians who support the death penalty for the defendants in Minya are unconcerned with its merits; instead, they believe that such toughness is necessary to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. On Monday, Ahmed Moussa, a presenter on the private TV channel Sada El Balad, exclaimed on the air, “May they be ten thousand, may they be twenty thousand—not five hundred! We are not sad at all.” He added, “You know what? Set them on fire.”
Today, in the absence of an elected government, the judiciary has become another of the country’s rogue institutions, answerable to no one. In the new constitution that they helped draft, judges bestowed upon themselves almost total autonomy. They are in a retaliatory mood, not only toward the Islamists, who have accused them of corruption and have tried to force senior judges into retirement, but also toward secular activists who have criticized their rulings—some of whom have since been arraigned on charges of “insulting the judiciary.”
Whether citizens lend unconditional support to the state’s monopoly on power—as many in Egypt now seem to do—or abandon all hope of legal recourse, the lack of justice is bound to fuel further violence. Islamists have already called for protests against the verdict in Minya, which are almost sure to lead to further clashes. The country is already facing a low-level insurgency in Sinai; terrorist attacks have reached the capital. Few things are more damaging to an already fractured society than for the courts to become nothing more than tools of political retribution.