Political Executions

Suppressing Muslim Brotherhood

Mayy El Sheikh

The province of Minya, an Islamist stronghold that was at the center of an insurgency 20 years ago, was a major flash point. Mobs stormed and destroyed several churches and police stations.

Two of Mr Abdel-Wahab's younger relatives were in custody and convicted in the case, and four others were still at large but convicted, he and his family said. They deny that any of their relatives participated in the attack. But in the case of Mr Abdel-Wahab, who learned of his sentence from his weeping wife when he returned home from a party on Monday, the accusations are particularly implausible. He is a survivor of multiple heart operations and he is visibly feeble. He insisted that doctors had forbidden him to walk up stairs or inhale smoke, much less battle tear gas and bullets to ransack a police station. He pulled up his jalabiya to show surgical scars on both calves.

"I am the one who broke into the police station and killed the police officer?" he asked, sitting in his living room surrounded by family.

When he learned months ago that he had been charged with participating in the attack, he said, he immediately went to the police to explain that there must be a mistake. He said he told them that he was obviously too unwell to have taken part. And he said that their arrest warrant had listed his age as 45 instead of 60, and his occupation as unemployed. But the police insisted that the charges were correct and, inexplicably, allowed him to leave and continue his work at the school.

"Everything is a whim," he said. "There is no rule of law."

Those like Mr Abdel Wahab who were sentenced in absentia—the vast majority of the defendants—would be entitled to a retrial if they were brought into custody, and all the verdicts are subject to appeal. In finalizing last month's mass verdict, the judge in both cases, Saed Youssef, on Monday confirmed the death sentences on 37 of those defendants while commuting 492 to life in prison—understood here as a term of 25 years. But if the verdicts are not yet final, rights advocates say the two mass death sentences are just the most extreme examples in a pattern of harsh, politicized verdicts supporting the new military-backed government in its sweeping crackdown. Increasingly, said Michelle Dunne, an Egypt expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "there seems to be no attempt even to construct plausible cases."

The death sentence against the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, 70, known as the supreme guide, appeared to mark a particular escalation. Trained as a veterinarian, he is revered as a religious authority by hundreds of thousands of Brotherhood members and supporters around the country, and, if carried out, his death sentence would mark the first time the Egyptian government has executed a supreme guide during more than six decades of often-bloody attempts to suppress the Brotherhood. In 1954, the government of President Gamal Abdel Nasser sentenced to death Supreme Guide Hassan el-Houdaibi, but his sentence was later commuted and he was released.

One Egypt court condemned nearly 700 Islamists, while another banned protests by a liberal group.

Security forces arrested Mr Badie last summer, and he remains in jail in Cairo facing multiple charges of inciting violence in the aftermath of the military takeover. His conviction in the Edwa case, however, is notable because he was known to be in Cairo at the time of the attack on the police station. And what's more, all of his public statements during the period leading up to the attack emphasized calls for nonviolence. "Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets," he declared in a televised speech, in a phrase that became a Brotherhood rallying cry.

The left-leaning April 6 movement also espouses nonviolence. It helped spearhead the revolt against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and it has been critical of authoritarianism and police abuses under Mr Morsi and the new military-backed government, earning it the special enmity of the security forces. On Monday, a panel known as the Cairo Court of Urgent Matters found the group guilty of conspiring with foreign powers and "committing acts that distort the image of the Egyptian state," according to the official state newspaper. Its members have repeatedly denied those charges, which have often been floated as rumors in the state news media.

But on Monday (April 28, 2014) it was the mass death sentence that captured the most attention. The White House said the ruling "defies even the most basic standards of international justice."

Asked about the sentences at an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Mr Fahmy, Egypt's foreign minister, said that the alarm was exaggerated, suggesting they might be overturned on appeal. "Don't jump to conclusions," he added. "Let the legal process follow through."

In Edwa, several residents warned that if the verdicts were left standing or were carried out, Minya would again erupt in violence.

"They must want to turn Minya into Syria and start a civil war, because that is what will happen if any of these death sentences is executed," said Ahmed Omar, 37, a shopkeeper with two brothers who were sentenced on Monday. Both are at large—one working in Qatar, the other in Cairo.

Ahmed, the 33-year-old son of Mr Abdel-Wahab, said he would take matters into his own hands if his father were put to death.

"I would personally blow myself up in the middle of the police station, and I am not afraid to say it," he added. "There is no freedom," he said. "It is if the revolution had never broken out."

Vol. 46, No. 46, May 25 -31, 2014