I know it is a bit late, but here are my thoughts on Egypt’s latest Judicial fiasco……
Egypt _____, a court in Minya south of Egypt, sentenced five hundred and twenty-nine Muslim Brotherhood defendants to death for the murder of a deputy chief police of the town of Matay. Following the verdict, a display of brief anger among the relatives of the defendants soon ended and the crowd went home. This muted reaction is in stark comparison to a similar, albeit smaller case, on January 2013, when a Cairo court sentenced twenty-one men from the city of Port Said to death for their alleged role in the massacre of seventy-four Cairo football fans in February 2012. The sentencing sparked wild outrage that turned the city of Port Said into a war-zone. The sheer difference between the two cases symbolizes the constant change of the Egyptian psyche since the January 2011 revolution to date.
The early success of the revolution tempted Egyptians to believe in the effectiveness affectivity of street mobilization. They viewed it not just as a release of their long-term suppressed anger, but also as a way to pressurize the authorities to listen to their demands. Ex-President Morsi tried to restore law and order in Port Said by imposing a curfew on the city, but to his surprise, the curfew was largely ignored and was lifted a few days after. The army played a very cautious game and declined to force any tough measures on civilians inside the city; they just secured major points in the city and ignored civilian neighborhoods. Nonetheless, the incident alerted the military to the importance of restoring the barrier of fear that they erected between themselves and ordinary Egyptians for over sixty years.
Following the ousting of Morsi, the military worked slowly but surely on restoring what they always portrayed as “the prestige of the state,” a subtle, albeit elegant, way to describe the installation of fear. The first step was the forced end of two sit-ins (Rabaa and Nahda) by the supporters of the country’s ousted Islamist President, Mohamed Morsi; the result was more than 600 deaths, including sixty-four policemen. Such bloody crackdowns triggered a vicious cycle of revenge. Islamists in the south of the country attacked churches and police stations, including the one in Matay, and killed its deputy police chief in the holy month of Ramadan. His death was a violent, brutal one by a gang of very angry Islamists. His death, along with the wide spread chaos in the south, did not serve the Islamists very well. In fact, it whitewashed the police atrocities in the Rabaa sit-ins in the minds of many ordinary Egyptians. The so-called “prestige of the state” became a popular slogan. While the outside worldview of the Islamists is as victims and martyrs, Egyptians, with a lot of guided influence from the local media, resented the Islamists and viewed them as “terrorists.” Demands for speedy trials to restore law and order rose sharply, and unsurprisingly were warmly welcomed by the military-backed authority.
At the heart of this crisis is Egypt’s judicial system. As Nathan Brown has described, the most important official in Egypt’s legal system is the prosecutor general, who ultimately decides whom to investigate and prosecute and whom to ignore. The Brotherhood understood that and appointed a prosecutor general loyal to them during Morsi’s era; he was later removed after the president’s ousting. This office has played an important role in Egypt’s controversial court cases from the trial of Mubarak, to that of Al-Jazeera journalists, and now this current case in Minya. Following the shocking verdict, the prosecutor referred another 919 Morsi supporters to a mass trial before the same court. Such hasty, almost farcical justice’s goal is not the deaths of the defendants; as most of the men found guilty were sentenced in absentia, others who were in custody still have a chance in the appeals court. However, the main goal is obviously as I mentioned earlier the installation of fear and acceptance of the authoritarian role.
One important point to remember is that such legal farce is not new to Egypt. Nasser set speedy trials during his tenure following the alleged attempt to murder him in 1954 and then later in the 1960s. Among those who were sentenced to death was Sayyid Qutb, the father of modern fundamentalism. Sadat and Mubarak would never hesitate to do the same, if they faced with similar challenges.
The risk now for Egypt is whether the policy of installing fear will produce only shallow, short-term results. Any brutal murder must be punished, nonetheless, without real justice for those defendants in the appeal court, the already tense communities, with easy access to smuggled arms (from Libya, and Sudan) can be transformed to insurgent groups willing to fight the central authority. The current calm in the south could very well be the calm before a strong, persistent storm. The relatives of the defendants may have quietly gone home after the court ruling, but in Upper Egypt revenge is a deeply rooted tradition.