The new regime in Egypt has been handing out mass death sentences to Muslim Brotherhood supporters. General al-Sisi has exploited hostility to the Brotherhood to crack down on mass street protests more generally and to excuse his betrayal of the people of Gaza. More needs to be done to defend the Brotherhood supporters, writes Peter Hill.
Since General al-Sisi came to power in Egypt, we have seen a return to authoritarianism with a vengeance. For many, this has been symbolised by the draconian Protest Law, designed to put an end to the tradition that has sprung up since 2011 of mass street protests. We have also heard a good deal, and rightly, about the prison sentences for three al-Jazeera journalists, and for secular and left-wing activists such as the Revolutionary Socialist Mahienour el-Masry. International pressure, it seems, resulted in the reduction of Mahienour’s sentence from two years to six months, on 20 July.
But less is being said about the much harsher sentences that have been handed down to Muslim Brotherhood supporters, who are bearing the main brunt of the Egyptian state’s crackdown. As the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) reports, ‘On June 21, a criminal court in al-Minya upheld the death sentences of 183 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), including the Supreme Guide of the MB Mohamed Badie.’
Death sentences had been originally handed out to hundreds of (alleged) Muslim Brotherhood supporters since March: 529 were sentenced, mostly in absentia, in March. Another 683, including Badie, were condemned to death in April: this court also confirmed 37 of the earlier sentences. Previously, in the summer of 2013, there had been police killings and mass arrests of many more Muslim Brotherhood supporters, or those who were accused of being such. Many of them, of course, may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is unclear whether any of these death sentences will in fact be carried out: not only are the convicted likely to appeal, but the approval of Egypt’s Grand Mufti is formally required before any execution can take place, giving rise to speculation that he would overturn the verdict. But there is a worrying precedent. FIDH noted that, in the week preceding this court decision, the first executions in Egypt since 2011 had been carried out – seven men and one woman put to death, for murder and robbery. These were not political prisoners, but their executions set an especially worrying precedent in the context of the mass death sentences given to Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
General al-Sisi’s coup in July 2013 ousted the elected President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government from power. It follows that whatever legitimacy the new military regime had was based on demonstrating the illegitimacy of the previous Muslim Brotherhood government, which, whatever its sins, had at least come to power via the ballot box. Al-Sisi, after his election as President in May, can now claim this form of legitimacy too. But there has always been a sense in which his power must depend on the extirpation of the Brotherhood. In the run-up to the elections, he said on television: ‘There will be nothing called the Muslim Brotherhood during my tenure.’
Al-Sisi’s regime has thus sought to demonise the Muslim Brotherhood as ‘terrorists’ who tried, during their brief period in power, to destroy, undermine, or ‘Brotherize’ the Egyptian state. There has been, it has to be said, a good deal of support for this anti-Brotherhood backlash, and for al-Sisi’s coup, among Egyptians. Their reasons were doubtless varied: the perception that Morsi’s government had failed and that al-Sisi could offer stability and a return to normality, a real fear of the Brotherhood’s Islamicising intentions, and, not least, the massive vested interests of those dependent on the state sector, the military and state-linked businesses. The Brotherhood had offered a challenge to these by favouring private-sector firms with no state connections.
General al-Sisi has also found Western ideological allies, such as Tony Blair, a supporter of al-Sisi’s regime from the outset and now an economic adviser to the General. Blair has of course been denouncing Islamism as ‘the world’s greatest threat’ for a decade. Egypt has also, we should note, received a multi-billion-dollar loan from Gulf countries opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood – Saudi Arabia and UAE, which in May, along with Bahrain, began sanctions and threats against Qatar in protest against the latter’s continued support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The backlash against the Muslim Brotherhood has also been extended, by al-Sisi’s Egypt, to Hamas, banned in Egypt since March. Since the start of the Israeli assault on Gaza, al-Sisi’s failure to support the people of Gaza has been particularly obvious: his animosity towards Hamas, due to its association with the Muslim Brotherhood, has contributed to this. Hamas had in fact been warning that al-Sisi’s regime was “paving the way for another Israeli invasion of Gaza” as long ago as last October. The Egyptian media has come out in support of Israel during this latest assault.
This criticism of al-Sisi does not, of course, in any way justify the actions – frequently violent and brutal – of the Muslim Brotherhood while they were in power. The question of where to put the emphasis on the dangers of state authoritarianism and those of Islamism is still a difficult and controversial one for the left, in the Arab world in particular. But there can be little doubt as to who has the upper hand in Egypt now, and it is not the Brotherhood (though other Islamists, such as the Salafist al-Nour Party, have survived the crackdown so far, offering acquiescence to the new regime).
Al-Sisi has exploited the anti-Brotherhood feeling in Egypt to boost his own popularity, to provide cover for a general crackdown on civil rights, and to excuse his failure to offer support to the Gazans. Many of those who opposed Mubarak in 2011 were persuaded to offer at least tacit acquiescence to al-Sisi’s coup in 2013 and his subsequent repression, out of a sense that the Brotherhood was the greater danger. There are signs that some of these people are now having second thoughts: witness the large number of Egyptian intellectuals who have signed a statement demanding the abrogation of the Protest Law. They include two who were involved in the drafting of the new Egyptian Constitution in January, and others such as the novelist Sonallah Ibrahim who have offered qualified support to al-Sisi. It is to be hoped that this is a sign of change, and that still more Egyptians will find the courage to oppose the new authoritarianism.
But opposition to al-Sisi’s regime remains incomplete unless we defend all of its victims – including supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and others with whom we disagree. Egypt is not the only place where the spectre of an ‘Islamist threat’ has been used to stampede liberals and even leftists into reactionary positions: think of Christopher Hitchens’s support for the Iraq War, or the project of the right-wing Standpoint magazine, founded specifically to take advantage of the post-9/11 fear of Islamism.
In helping to defend, if we can, the victims of Egyptian authoritarianism, we in Britain and other countries must not fall into this kind of trap. If we are to offer a principled opposition to al-Sisi’s new regime of ‘police despotism’ in Egypt, we cannot protest only at the oppression of socialist or secular activists and al-Jazeera journalists. In the face of a savage authoritarianism we must extend what protection we can to the Brotherhood’s supporters now facing repression, in spite of the crimes the former Brotherhood regime. Unless we do this, we fall into a tacit and contemptible complicity with al-Sisi’s regime.
The Egypt Solidarity Initiative organised a petition against the mass death sentences of March and April, and has publicised a statement on the court decision of 21 June by Egyptian activists. It is to be hoped that these actions will continue.