Cairo: Egypt’s former president Mohammed Morsi’s fate seemed predictably sealed after his arrest in 2013: a long prison sentence, or exile perhaps. Not many had expected the death sentenced an Egyptian court delivered to Morsi, along with 105 others, on Saturday. Morsi was charged with colluding with foreign groups and plotting a mass prison break from Egypt’s Wadi El Natroun in January 2011, during the time when protests against then President Hosni Mubarak were gaining steam. He had been detained there with other Muslim Brotherhood members for only a few days when the prison break occurred. Morsi eventually became Egypt’s first elected president after Mubarak’s fall, until he was ousted in July 2013 by then General Abdul Fatah El-Sisi of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).
Today’s Egypt looks remarkably different from 2012, but eerily similar to a pre-2011 era. A former general, El-Sisi, is Egypt’s president, and the Muslim Brotherhood is largely exiled or driven underground. In one sense, the recent sentence handed to Morsi looks like just another example of political vendetta against Egypt’s Islamists over the past two years. After widespread public protests calling for Morsi’s ouster, security forces clamped down on the Muslim Brotherhood—including a chilling massacre of Morsi supporters in Rabaa Square in August 2013—while courts sentenced the Brotherhood, and seeming Islamist sympathizers, to prison in mass trials. In a separate trial last month, Morsi was sentenced to 20 years in prison for ordering the arrest and torture of protesters in December 2012.
Morsi’s and the others’ death sentence is still pending the Grand Mufti’s verdict next month. But the courts’ decision to even hand down such a harsh sentence is not just an act against the Muslim Brotherhood. It is indicative of a concerted effort to strongly clamp down on political opposition, like the kind that first brought upon the 2011 revolution. As Egypt’s political leadership shifted from SCAF authority to a civilian government, its method of quelling dissent has also shifted from using the heavy hand of security forces to increasingly using the heavy hand of institutions like the courts.
Among the hundred-plus sentenced this past weekend were young activists, such as Sondos Asem, Morsi’s former media coordinator, and academics such as Emad Shahin, a professor at American University in Cairo and Georgetown University. Both were sentenced on charges of espionage, and like many other defendants, both were tried in absentia. But the courts were not as concerned about the process, the evidence, or access to the defence, as they were about the message the sentence delivered: a reminder of just how tightly the spaces for dissent in Egypt are closing in.
Over the past several months, courts have handed prison sentences to pro-democracy activists who are not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Ahmed Douma, a leading protester in the 2011 revolution, was given life in prison for inciting violence. Another leading revolutionary figure, Alaa Abd El Fattah, was sentenced to five years for violating the anti-protest law written in Egypt’s new constitution. Over the weekend, the courts went so far as to criminalise and ban activity of the Ultras, a local football fan group, and label them terrorists. The Ultras had been an instrumental organised force during the revolution.
Muslim Brotherhood’s slow decline
The Egyptian court system seems almost comical when one compares these cases, and Morsi’s recent sentencing, with the court proceedings for Mubarak, who ruled the country for 30 years. Last winter, a judge dropped the case against Mubarak for ordering the killing of hundreds of protesters in 2011. Earlier this month, another judge gave Mubarak three years in prison for corruption charges—a sentence he may have already carried out while awaiting trial.
Yet, despite the similarities, today’s Egypt is not the Egypt of the pre-2011 Revolution era. Unlike Mubarak, El-Sisi arguably enjoys widespread support as president. The Muslim Brotherhood is once again underground, but it is no longer as organized and politically effective as it once was. (This is not just because of the state’s clampdown—some analysts argue that the Muslim Brotherhood failed itself by not using the opportunity under Morsi to govern effectively.)
There is also a dramatically different regional context than in 2011, and an overwhelming regional consideration: security and stability, especially during a time when the Middle East is undergoing unpredictable turmoil. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Gulf States have emerged as the stable bloc in the region while other countries struggle to determine their political future. Most notably, this struggle has manifested in the debate between Islamist vs. secular leadership, especially in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. And Gulf countries have been eager to use their financial power and ideological biases to influence these trends.
Nowhere else has the Gulf countries’ power more blatantly affected a country’s evolution as in Egypt. Under Morsi’s reign, Qatar offered Egypt financial support to boost its failing economy, sparking real worries and conspiracy theories about Doha’s efforts to bolster the Muslim Brotherhood and strengthen Islamist players in the region. By July 2013, after Morsi’s ouster, Saudi Arabia stepped in and threw its support behind Egypt’s new leadership, preferring the predictable military government that would help maintain the regional status quo as much as possible. Over the past two years, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have given over $20 billion in aid to Egypt, and pledged more aid this past March. The move is not only to help revive the country’s economy, but also to help Sisi deliver bread (a symbolic cry from the revolution) and social services to the masses. The relationship has been beneficial for Saudi Arabia as well, which recently launched a war in Yemen against Houthi rebels. The Egyptian army was ready to respond to its benefactor’s call to arms.
Security at all cost
Beyond regional power plays, realities on the ground have strengthened the need to maintain security, at whatever cost. The expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the exploding conflicts in Libya and Yemen, and the rise in terrorist attacks in Egypt seriously threaten the region’s security. Egypt’s strategic location and role in fighting terrorism is one reason why the United States renewed aid to Egypt after the Rabaa massacre, and why its response to Morsi’s recent sentence was merely to express “concern.”
The desire for security and stability is the main reason why El-Sisi’s conflation of Muslim Brotherhood and terrorists continues to appeal to the masses. After months of turmoil, Egypt has determined not that Islamists cannot rule a post-revolution Egypt, but that they are dangerous to the very fabric of the state. As ridiculous and shocking as a mass death sentence to Morsi and other activists is, most Egyptians will see this as the state using a heavy hand against “terrorists”.
But the recent sentence suggests another numbing truth as well: there is no institution in Egypt that serves all swathes of society. The courts care much less about justice than they do about political influence. So after losing political representation, and with no possibilities for justice, what means will the Muslim Brotherhood turn to next to shape the course of their country?
(Rozina Ali is senior editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs in Egypt. She is on Twitter at: @rozina_ali)