An Egyptian court sentenced over 500 supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi to death on Monday, in an unprecedented mass conviction that should serve as a powerful reminder of the domination of Egypt’s military-backed leadership over the country’s institutions.
The verdict in the murder of a single police officer during rioting last summer is an aggressive entry in an already severe crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has been politically decimated since his ouster last July. It also marks the most robust strike against the now-outlawed group by Egypt’s judiciary (which was frequently at odds with Morsi’s Islamist government during his tenure). The harsh sentence has already provoked condemnation from human rights groups, including Amnesty International which slammed the verdict as “a grotesque example of the shortcomings and selective nature of Egypt’s justice system.”
The obvious partiality the judiciary has shown in its prosecutions against the Brotherhood shouldn’t be a huge surprise given its history with the group and its questionable ties with the current regime. But the severe and unprecedented nature of Monday’s sentence — which blatantly undermines any veneer of integrity the institution may have had — shows the lengths the judiciary is willing to go in abetting the military leadership’s campaign against the Islamist group. As the New York Times points out:
Scholars said the verdict appeared to be without precedent in Egypt, in part because it was issued by a regular court rather than by a military tribunal or other special security panel.
Sixty years ago, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the military strongman who set the template for the Arab world, jailed thousands of Islamists and executed many of their leaders as he consolidated power. But he set up special tribunals outside the regular judiciary for his show trials.
“Toward the end of his life, Nasser is even said to have told a group of judges that he did it that way to avoid implicating them in what he felt he had to do,” said Professor Brown of George Washington. He called the verdict “a sign of how much at least some parts of the judiciary are fully on board with the new order — indeed, their enthusiasm is undermining its international reputation.”
The remarkable turnaround here should also be testament to the effectiveness of the military’s reassertion of its dominance over the country’s institutions following the 2011 uprising and the Brotherhood’s short tenure in government — as well as a sign of its willingness to test the boundaries of that dominance. Moves like Monday’s verdict do more than just send an ominous warning to members of the Islamist opposition; they also force the military’s liberal allies to either double-down on their support or rethink it — all while pushing the limits of what was previously thought possible in Egyptian politics. Based on the limited domestic outcry to this most recent move, look for the military leadership to grow only more tenacious and blatant in their assertion of authoritarianism.