With 22 Executions Over Three Successive Tuesdays, Is Egypt's Sisi Sending a Warning?

The recent spate of executions appear to be an attempt by the Sisi government to portray power to silence all opponents before the March presidential election.

Statistics show a sharp increase in executions in the years since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power. Credit: Reuters

For three Tuesdays in a row in Egypt, 22 civilians in all were led out of their jail cells to the gallows – 15 on December 26, four on January 2 and three on January 9 – and hanged.

All 22 had been sentenced to death by a military tribunal for various terror-related charges. Such executions, or ‘state-sanctioned murder’ as some call it, have become the norm in Egypt ever since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in 2014 after he, as defence minister, brutally helped stamp out the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ever since, there has been a remarkable rise in the number of death sentences and executions being meted out in Egypt. Fear has gripped the populace as to go against the powers that be is now akin to a suicide mission.

According to the media in Egypt, courts sentenced 186 people to death in 2017, three times more than the previous year. In 2015, it executed 22 people. In 2016, that number doubled to 44. In 2017, 16 were executed. Now, in the last few days of 2017, and the start of 2018, 22 men have already lost their lives.

The United Nations human rights wing has expressed “deep shock” and concern over the fact that “due process and fair trial guarantees” were not followed. Highlighting how tracking humans rights violations has become more difficult than ever in Egypt, Human Rights Watch in September said in a report that Egyptian police and national security officers had carried out “widespread and systematic torture of prisoners”.

According to UN human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell:

“In cases of capital punishment, trials must meet the highest standards of fairness and due process. Reports also indicate that the prisoners who were executed may have been subjected to initial enforced disappearance and torture before being tried. Despite the security challenges facing Egypt – in particular in Sinai – executions should not be used as a means to combat terrorism.”

“Why hold 22 executions over three successive Tuesdays?,” asked Mona Eltahawy for the New York Times. “They seem a clear message from a government determined to show it is in control. There is usually a security clampdown in the run-up to January 25, the anniversary of the uprising in 2011 that spread revolutionary protests against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak across Egypt.”

“These death sentences and executions are a flagrant breach of international law,” Maya Foa, director of the international human rights organisation Reprieve, said on December 26. “Trials in Egypt routinely fail to meet basic fair trial standards, and this is especially so in mass trials and military tribunals, as in this case.”

While there are no official figures, Cornell Law School reports that there are at least 1,700 people who have the death penalty hanging over their heads in Egypt.

The game is afoot

With the country fast hurtling towards the presidential election – which Sisi has called for in March – the president has all but ensured that every opponent had been forced to drop out of the race.

But just hours before the nomination deadline, Mousa Mostafa Mousa, who leads the Ghad party, managed to secure the required number of nomination pledges to throw his hat into the ring barely a few minutes before the deadline.

The last-minute bid comes days after Hisham Genena, a former anti-corruption watchdog chief who had been working to elect former military chief of staff Sami Anan, was attacked and badly wounded outside his home on Saturday, reported Reuters. Anan’s campaign was abruptly halted after he was arrested last week and accused of running for office without military permission.

If not for Mousa, Sisi would have been the sole presidential candidate in the third election since protests in 2011 unseated long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak. Yet, before anyone can celebrate such an event, it would be prudent to remember that more than three-quarters of the members of parliament expressed support for Sisi the minute the election date was announced.

What makes the whole situation even more riveting is that the Ghad party had endorsed a second term for Sisi before this last-minute decision was taken. In fact, at the time of Mousa’s registration, his personal Facebook page included a cover photo with Sisi’s face and “we support you as president of Egypt” written beneath it.

The result is due on May 1.

An eye for an eye

In the case of the 15 executions on December 26, 2017, “Egyptian human rights groups have said, the legal procedures were flawed and at least one of the 15 appeared to have been tortured,” reports the New York Times.

Not just that, none of the families of the prisoners were allowed to come say goodbye as is required by Egyptian law. Instead, all they got, after a year of beseeching the government for a fair trial, was a gut-wrenching call asking them to come pick up the bodies – a process that isn’t easy at all thanks to a billion bureaucratic hurdles.

In fact, as one family told the New York Times, an appeal had been scheduled for February 26, a date which only lands six weeks after the hanging. Now, there is no hope.

What were the charges against these 15 men? The men had been accused of taking part an attack on a 2013 military checkpoint in the Sinai peninsula where one officer and eight soldiers were killed barely days after government security forces killed nearly a thousand people taking part in the Muslim Brotherhood protest in Cairo.

This awful moment in history occurred barely a few weeks after the military wrested power from Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, a president who had actually been democratically elected.

In a judgment that shocked the world in 2014 during a mass trial, an Egyptian judge sentenced 683 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death. Amnesty International immediately condemned the judgment and called it “a grotesque move”. This came a month after another judgment that sentenced 528 people – ostensibly Muslim Brotherhood supporters – to death.

Mohamed Morsi. Credit: Reuters

No procedures were reportedly followed. Most of those being condemned to die were tried in absentia. As Egyptian law has it, defendants are not allowed to put up a defense if not present in court.

Eventually, only 37 of the 528 were hanged, and of the 683, 183 people were sentenced to death, four received life sentences and 496 were acquitted.

It should be noted that no member of the security forces has been held responsible for that mass slaughter when Cairo’s walls were painted red. Nor is it likely they will ever be, unless chance has it and Egypt gets a leader who is willing to right past wrongs.

The four executed on January 2 had been convicted earlier for alleged involvement in a bombing on a bus which killed three military cadets in Egypt’s northern Kafr al-Sheikh province in 2015.

For the next two years, the four – Lotfy Khalil, Sameh Abdalla, Ahmed Abdelhadi and Ahmed Salama – were forced to sit through a farcical trial in a military court. CNN reported that “because the attack happened on a main street, the case came under military jurisdiction due to a recent presidential decree granting Egypt’s military the authority for policing public places and land up to two kilometres from public roads”.

“The rise in the number of executions over the last year is scary,” said Ezzat Ghoneim, a lawyer representing the families in the Kafr el-Sheikh case told CNN. “The significant increase in handing down death sentences only indicates that the rate of executions will accelerate in the coming days.”

“It is as if it’s time to finally settle scores,” he said.

(With inputs from Reuters.)