Former president Mohammed Moursi, cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, and 104 other people have been sentenced to death. Among the others condemned on Saturday, May 16, were Mohamed Badie, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and Mahmoud Ezzat, the group’s number two. Mr Moursi was convicted of murder and attempted murder during his jailbreak with the MB’s help in 2011, in the unrest that surrounded the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak. Others were jihadists belonging to groups that have committed terror attacks in the Sinai, some of them Palestinian. He was also part of a different set of 16 defendants sentenced to death for espionage, along with MB heavyweight Khairat Al-Shater.
The sentences have been referred to the Grand Mufti for ratification, after which they will be confirmed or commuted on June 2; Mr Moursi’s defence team has said that it might not appeal, preferring instead not to recognise the court. Mr Qaradawi, who lives in Qatar, said the verdicts “have no value and cannot be implemented.”
The reaction from Islamist extremists was immediate: only hours after the verdict, two judges, a prosecutor, and the men’s driver were shot dead in Al-Arish in the Sinai. The government declared a state of emergency in response. On Sunday, May 17, the army killed seven jihadists in retaliatory helicopter raids on various localities in North Sinai, and arrested more than 120 suspects.
There were more incidents of terrorism and sabotage on Monday, May 17: electricity pylons in Beheira on the Mediterranean coast and in Aswan in the south of Egypt were bombed, and a shooting attack in Sharqiya killed one policeman and wounded two more. Also at the weekend, six death sentences were carried out: members of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdes, the group known as Wilayat Sinai since its affiliation with Islamic State (IS), were hanged for their roles in terror attacks in 2013.
Amnesty International condemned the hangings, saying that two of the men were already in jail at the time of the attack for which they were hanged and that the convictions relied only on the testimony of secret policemen.
In April, when Mr Moursi was sentenced to 20 years in jail for his role in tortures committed under his presidency and was acquitted on a murder charge, it was thought that the State was signalling a slightly softer approach to the MB, perhaps in consideration of the regional alignments which have seen it co-operating more closely with Qatar. But the weekend’s sentences are evidence against that, and instead make it look as though President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi wants to harden his line on the MB even further.
If Mr Moursi and Mr Badie are ultimately hanged more unrest could be expected than has been seen in recent months; the Pro-Legitimacy National Alliance, an MB front, called on Egyptians to “continue and escalate their non-violent struggle and actively participate in the revolutionary wave extending until July 3,” which will mark the second anniversary of Mr Moursi’s ouster by Mr Sisi. Some more terrorist attacks should be expected, but in the medium term security risk is trending positive, as the army’s counter-terror operations in the Sinai thin out the ranks of jihadis.
In other news, President Al-Sisi appointed Ahmed Al-Zend as his new justice minister on Wednesday, May 20. Mr Zend’s predecessor, Mahfouz Saber, quit after he said that “the sons of cleaning workers” could not become judges, a statement that embarrassed the government.
Mr Zend, the president of the judges’ club, has a reputation as being strongly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB): during the MB’s time in power under Mr Moursi, he firmly opposed moves by the executive to limit the powers of the courts and to force thousands of judges into early retirement. He has even spoken critically about the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, saying that that event allowed the MB to seize power. Mr Sisi’s government still pays lip service to the ’25 January Revolution’.
Mr Zend’s appointment indicates that the harder line on the MB will continue, and more death sentences and hurried mass trials can be expected. So far, these developments have had little effect on Egypt’s international relations (the US State Department was widely mocked in the week for its feeble statement that Egypt could expect “frank discussions” over Mr Moursi’s death sentence), but the harsh measures contribute to radicalising Islamists, and help jihadist groups recruit.
Francois Conradie (Political Analyst)