In shocking but not exactly surprising news, Mohammed Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Egypt has been sentenced to death for his role in a 2011 prison break, which occurred during the protests that ultimately led to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak.
While it is rare for Amnesty International, the US and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to agree on anything, all quickly expressed outrage at Morsi’s sentence. The US expressed “deep concern”, Erdogan decried the use of the death penalty and Amnesty called the trial a “charade”.
On the night of January 28 2011, two days after their arrest, 34 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Mohammed Morsi, fled the Wadi Natrum prison, along with several thousand other prisoners. While some accounts suggest that the guards at the prison fled their posts in the face of chaos on the streets, the official Sisi regime line is that Hamas and Hezbollah were involved in facilitating the prison break.
Morsi was not the only person to be sentenced to death for these crimes – 104 others were also sentenced for the same crime (a large number of them in absentia, as allowed under the newly reformed Penal Code). In the courtroom, Morsi and his fellow defendants were defiant as charges were read out, chanting “down with military rule”.
The verdict comes less than a month after Morsi was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being found guilty of inciting violence and the illegal detention and torture of protesters while occupying the office of the president.
Senior Brotherhood officials are rejecting the legitimacy of the judicial process, a sentiment echoed by senior figures in the US State Department, who suggest that this decision is “inconsistent with Egypt’s international obligations and the rule of law”.
Crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood
This appears to be the latest step in the almost two-year long crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which began with the coup d’etat against the Morsi government in July 2013.
The sentence now has to be confirmed by the Egyptian grand mufti, whose decision will likely be instrumental in determining whether chaos is to envelop Egypt once again. Coming from Egypt’s highest religious figure, the mufti’s pronouncement is not legally binding but nevertheless necessary to carry out a death sentence, as the final verdict cannot be issued until that is known. The mufti’s decision will also be indicative of the real state of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics, as the religious figure has sided with the Islamist organisation in the past.
In August 2014, Egypt’s highest legal official in fact refused to approve the death sentence of Mohamed Badie (the Brotherhood’s general guide) and of another 13 Brotherhood members – which is seen in some quarters as setting a precedent for what might happen next.
Whatever the mufti’s final decision, chaos is likely to break out in the country once again, from either “betrayed” Brotherhood supporters or angered governmental officials, depending on which side the religious authority chooses to support. Only hours after the verdict, three Egyptian judges were killed in Sinai, a reflection of the levels of discontent and growing unrest within Egypt.
Regardless of the final verdict, the increasing number of death sentences is indicative of the deteriorating state of what little democracy was established after the 2011 uprisings. The endless postponement of the parliamentary elections is a clear sign of al-Sisi’s unwillingness to be held accountable by anyone outside of his circle of supporters.
Sisi’s administration is characterised by a steady decrease of democratic practices and civil liberties, as the president attempts to reinforce its authority by propagating levels of brutality and repression that are unmatched in the country’s history.
Another element that is indicative of the current state of affairs in Egypt is the decision to drop all criminal charges against previous dictator Hosni Mubarak and his sons, which further underlines the continuation of the military’s deep state despite the events of 2011.
Meanwhile, daily human rights abuses are quickly leading the country to breaking point once again. The steady deterioration of human rights and democratic practices in Egypt can be directly traced to al-Sisi’s amendments to the Penal Code, which allow civilians to be tried in absentia in military courts without the right of even consulting with a lawyer.
Morsi’s sentence will not only be another blow to Egypt’s already fragile democracy, but is also further diminishing al-Sisi’s volatile international credibility.
As we argued previously, Morsi’s trial can be seen as the culmination of the military’s quest to regain its ruling power and to reinstate the status quo that was interrupted by the 2011 uprisings. Similarly, such events are also a continuation of the previous Egyptian governments’ decades long practice of branding Islamists as scapegoats.
Morsi’s sentence can still be appealed – as a second court date has been set for June 2 – meanwhile Egypt awaits the grand mufti’s decision. But until then, the country remains on the verge of explosive popular discontent and chaos, which al-Sisi’s unprecedented security measures are failing to contain.