Last Saturday a court in the Egyptian town of Minya sentenced 183 members of Muslim Brotherhood, a banned organisation, to death. They have been accused of murdering and of attempting to murder policemen. On Monday, another court in Cairo sentenced three Doha-based Al Jazeera television news channel to seven years and 10 years in prison. The three journalists, Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Arab Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed have been accused of giving the false picture of a civil war in the country and that they supported Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned on grounds of terrorism.
The two verdicts will be appealed but they reveal a disturbing trend. It appears that it is an attempt to send a resolute signal that the government of the newly-elected president and former army man, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, will crush Muslim Brotherhood and all those seen to be sympathising with it without any compunction, and that it would also rudely brush aside niceties of a fair trial and due process of law.
There are of course differences between the two cases. The activists of the Muslim Brotherhood were out on the streets when former president Mohammed Morsi was overthrown last August and there was violence. The government killed the protesters belonging to the puritanical Islamic organisation. There were fierce clashes between the security forces and the Brotherhood members. It may not have been the civil war as described by the Al Jazeera journalists, which is a call of judgment, but there was violence on a large scale. There were street fights between supporters and opponent of Morsi. The army intervened and deposed Morsi which led to further protests by the Brotherhood which was crushed and an uncounted number of the protesters were killed.
There have been international protests against the harsh sentences against the Al Jazeera journalists, including US secretary of state John Kerry, and UN human rights chief Navi Pillay criticising the death sentence of Muslim Brotherhood members as well as Al Jazeera journalists. It is more likely that the case of the journalists will get greater international attention than that of the Muslim Brotherhood activists.
But the issue cannot be split. The motive behind the two sentences is the same: the desire of the government to appear to be determined to put down traces of terrorism.
The neighbouring Arab governments, and Western powers led by the US, have given their support to “secular” al-Sisi, and they have little or no sympathy for the blinkered and intolerant Brotherhood. The electoral victory of al-Sisi with a vote of 97 per cent makes it quite suspicious. Egyptian courts have not shown any evidence of being fiercely independent and going against the government of the day. That is why, the death sentences against the Brotherhood activists and the sentences against the Al-Jazeera journalists appear to be dubious. The courts will have to show that they have been scrupulously fair. It is unlikely that the courts and the judges are worried about the norms of justice. The battle in Egypt is being waged at a deeper psychological and political level. It is a war between secularists and fundamentalists, and each side is fighting for its survival. A majority of Egyptians desire a moderate political setup, not the intolerant regimes either of the army or of the Brotherhood. Political stability is lined to transparency and tolerance, and these two qualities seem to be sorely missing in the present situation.