A death sentence for Egyptian democracy

opinion March 28, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

The military regime in Cairo has sent a terrible warning to anyone thinking of challenging its grip on power

The number itself was disturbing. In fact, “disturbing” is an understatement for what happened at the Egyptian High Court on Monday. 
The court condemned 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death for their alleged involvement in the killing of one police officer last summer. 
The verdict was a predictable outcome in this judicial system run amok. But the number of people sentenced sent a shocking message: that those who oppose this military-dominated regime could pay with their lives. This is the same regime that came to power by overthrowing a democratically elected government, before ruthlessly cracking down on protesters and pro-democracy forces.
Many observers predict the verdict will be overturned on appeal, but there is no denying the outrageousness of the decision itself. 
If the Egyptian military thinks this will silence its critics and cow supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi, who is facing similar charges, it needs to think again. The likely outcome of this judicial warning will be the growth and radicalisation of the anti-government movement. Instability looks set to deepen, blighting an Arab country that has so much to offer the world community.
While Monday’s verdict was preposterous, the trial from which it emerged was a sham. It took just two days, leaving no time for the suspects to put forward a proper defence. Most of those accused were convicted in absentia. Another 683 members of the Muslim Brotherhood are facing similar charges in the same court.
As well as its crackdown on political activism, the military-led government has lashed out at reporters. Journalists, foreign and local, have been arrested for unfavourable coverage of the government. Among them are Al Jazeera’s Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, who have been held in a Cairo jail for the past 86 days. They made their third court appearance on Monday. Along with other journalists, they are accused of aiding terrorists by presenting the views of government critics. 
The court’s haste in punishing Morsi’s supporters is in stark contrast to its inaction over numerous claims that the military has violated human rights. It comes as no surprise that the international community and rights organisations have voiced strong condemnation of Monday’s verdict. Amnesty International said the sentences were “a grotesque example of the shortcomings and the selective nature of Egypt’s justice system”.
More has to be done to show this military-led government that its actions will bring consequences. Washington, for example, needs to acknowledge that Morsi was ousted in a military coup, an illegal act that needs to be addressed by the courts. As such, the Egyptian military no longer deserves the support of US taxpayers. 
However, it seems that self-interest is currently governing all parties’ behaviour. Washington doesn’t want to pressure Cairo on rights and democracy for fear it would endanger its latest attempt to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel and Saudi Arabia have been lobbying hard to ensure that Egypt’s military regime retains its grip on power and that the Muslim Brotherhood remains in the political wilderness. 
Egypt’s prisons are full of political prisoners. According to the Egyptian government, about 16,000 mostly Muslim Brotherhood members have been detained since the crackdown that followed the coup July last year. Many face routine beatings, rights groups say. 
But instead of keeping the government’s repressive instincts in check, the country’s judicial system has decided to jump on the military-led bandwagon.

Most view