After an eight-minute trial a judge in Egypt has sentenced to death 683 alleged supporters of the former President Mohamed Morsi who was ousted in a military coup last July. Among those condemned to die is the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist organisation despite its tradition of non-violence and having won Egypt’s first-ever democratic elections.
The verdict after such a short mass trial is likely to discredit further the Egyptian authorities internationally, but they may not care about this so long as the military-backed regime can secure its power domestically. The sentencing by the judge Said Youssef on Monday in a court in Minya, 150 miles south of Cairo, was given a further bizarre twist when he reduced death sentences he imposed in March on all but 37 of 529 defendants to terms of life imprisonment.
The effect of the mass death sentences and life-long terms of imprisonment after a summary hearing will be to spread fear that any dissent could lead to execution or lengthy terms in Egypt’s notoriously brutal prison system.
Among those condemned to death is Mohamed Badie, the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, most of whose leaders have been arrested. President Morsi was the first Egyptian leader chosen in a democratic election after millennia of authoritarian rule, but he was unable to gain control of institutions such as the army, police and judiciary.
He was overthrown in a military coup led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on 3 July last year. Supporters of the coup have claimed a quasi-democratic mandate because of a giant anti-Morsi rally on 30 June that they see as invalidating previous election results.
The death sentences imposed on Monday still have to be referred to the Grand Mufti but this is largely a formality. The mass trials are linked to the protests and riots that broke out last August when the security forces moved to crush sit-ins staged by the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters to show opposition to the coup. A report by Amnesty International says that at least 1,400 protesters and bystanders were killed by the security forces between July and January this year and another 16,000 people are in jail.
After the Mufti’s decision, the same court will hold another session on 21 June to issue the final verdicts. Families of the accused stood outside the court on Monday as they screamed in anger and disbelief at what had happened. “My three sons are inside,” said one woman who only gave her first name, Samiya to a reporter from a news agency. “I have no one but God.”
Security forces had surrounded the court building and blocked roads, preventing families and media from attending the proceedings, which lawyers said lasted only eight minutes. There is further confusion over why only 148 defendants were present inside the court with no explanation what had happened to the others.
Amnesty International called the death sentences “grotesque” and Egyptian rights groups were astonished by verdicts, passed after one hearing in which the defence was unable to present its case. One observer said that the proceedings reminded him of the trial in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in which the Queen says “sentence first – verdict afterwards” and shouts “Off with her head!” when Alice objects.
In a separate effort to crush dissent, another Egyptian court banned the 6 April youth movement that helped launch the 2011 uprising that led to the removal of President Hosni Mubarak. Legislation last November gave the police and the judiciary carte blanche to jail dissenters of any kind. The Cairo court ruled in a suit filed by a lawyer who demanded the banning of the youth group over allegations it “tarnished the image of the Egyptian state” and conspired against the country’s national interests. Leaders of 6 April – Ahmed Maher and Mohammed Adel – have been jailed for violating the new protest law that requires that any demonstration must have a police permit.
The first round of the presidential election is to be held on 26 and 27 May with Mr Sisi, until recently a field marshal, expected to be the winner, though opinion polls show his popularity as falling from 51 per cent to 39 per cent approval. The state-controlled or state-influenced media continues to glorify him and much of the opposition has denounced the poll as a charade.
The only candidate to run against Mr Sisi is Hamdeen Sabahi, a democratic politician with a long record of opposing military governments in the past. He came third with 4.8 million votes in the first round of the presidential election in 2012 which was won by Mr Morsi with 5.8 million votes and with Ahmed Shafiq, the military candidate, coming second with 5.5 million. Mr Morsi won the run-off with 13 million votes.
The Egyptian authorities have successfully reasserted themselves since the shock delivered by the fall of Mr Mubarak in 2011. The corrupt and dysfunctional state machine has rallied behind Mr Sisi and claims to be restoring law and order and economic prosperity. But the mass death sentences meted out to dissenters with no defence allowed shows that those in charge are not wholly confident that Egypt’s brief experience of democracy in 2011-13 will remain an atypical interlude in the country’s long history of autocracy.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.