Written by L. Lavi
On March 24, 2014, the Egyptian criminal court at Minya, headed by Judge Sa'id Youssef Sabri, handed down a mass death sentence for 529 Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members charged with attacking a police station and killing an officer in the Minya district. The crimes took place following the violent dispersal of the August 2013 Muslim Brotherhood sit-in at Raba'a Al-'Adawiyya mosque and Al-Nahda square.
Some 350 of the accused were tried in absentia, and the sentence was arrived at after only two sessions. As is customary in Egypt, the sentence was sent to the state mufti for review before final approval.
This sentence is one of the harshest in the history of Egypt's judicial system and unprecedented due to the sheer number of accused sentenced to death at the same time. The court is expected to hear an appeal on April 28; also on this date, hundreds of other MB members being tried on similar charges, including MB General Guide Muhammad Badi', will be sentenced.
The death sentences are part of a series of repressive measures taken by the current government against the MB since the July 3, 2013 ouster of president Muhammad Mursi. In addition to the August 14, 2013 violent dispersal of the MB supporters' month-long sit-in at Raba'a Al-'Adawiyya and Al-Nahda, in which some 1,000 people died, there has also been a wave of arrests of movement leaders and top officials; the September 23 forced disbanding and outlawing of the movement; the December 25 designation of the movement as a terrorist organization; the shutdown of its newspaper and the placing of some 1,000 groups and associations linked to it under state oversight; the placing of MB private schools under state oversight; the removal of the MB from the Constitution Drafting Committee; the April 15, 2014 ban on MB members running for president or for parliament; and the firing of hundreds of preachers associated with the movement.
The mass death sentence provoked broad international criticism. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said, "The imposition of the death penalty for 529 defendants after a two-day summary proceeding cannot be reconciled with Egypt's obligations under international human rights law, and its implementation of these sentences... would be unconscionable.... [They] "represent a flagrant disregard for basic standards of justice." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that he was "deeply, deeply troubled by the sudden and unprecedented decision by an Egyptian court to issue preliminary death sentences for 529 citizens after a quick mass trial. It simply defies logic."
Criticism was heard also from the UN, where it was stated by the human rights office that the sentence contravened international law. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed concern over it in an April 2014 meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy.
The outcry of human rights activists included Lebanese activist Wissam Tarif, who circulated a petition against the death sentences called "Egypt: Stop The Mass Execution"; as of this writing, over a million and a half signatures have been collected.
The MB movement and its supporters expressed outrage at the sentencing, calling it a "collective execution" by a judiciary that had determined the fate of the accused in great haste and without allowing them to defend themselves.
For the most part, the Egyptian media identified with the current regime defended the sentence, and rejected criticism of it as interference in Egypt's judiciary affairs. At the same time, several individuals identified with the regime criticized the harshness of the penalty, saying that at the very least it harmed the regime's interests and served MB interests both by allowing the movement to present itself as a victim and by sparking resentment and criticism towards Egypt on the international scene.
The following is a review of reactions to the mass death sentence for the MB members in the Egyptian public discourse:
Despite harsh international criticism of Egypt following the mass death sentence, most articles in the pro-regime press defended the sentence.
The March 26, 2014 editorial of the official Al-Ahram daily defended the Egyptian judge's decision in the name of protecting the independence of the judiciary, and called for not interfering in its affairs: "The foundation of legal rulings is that they are the embodiment of truth. If they contain some error, then there are higher courts that can examine the issues more broadly... Let the legal system work completely independently and without interference from any side..."
In its March 29 issue, The Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef published an article justifying the sentence titled "Execution Is The Solution," which is a play on the MB's slogan "Islam is the solution." It claimed that this death sentence was a deterrent that suited the crimes committed by MB supporters, which included killing officers and civilians, torching churches and monasteries, abducting nuns, torching stores and homes, and looting museums and stealing archeological artifacts from them. It also included a photo of the hanging of effigies of MB officials, including Muhammad Mursi, Khairat Al-Shater, Muhammad Badi', and Mustafa Higazi:
Effigies of MB officials on the gallows (source: Roz Al-Yousef, Egypt, March 29, 2014)
The article presented the collected responses of various experts and politicians who supported its position. Among them was the opinion of legal expert and former People's Assembly member Dr. 'Abdallah Al-Maghazi, who said that the uproar over the sentence was not a reflection of the opinion of the Egyptian street – which he said seeks deterrent penalties for all who attack public facilities and who have on their hands the blood of Egyptian soldiers and police officers – but rather a reflection of the view of an elite that is detached from the people.
Former transportation minister Dr. Hazem 'Abd Al-'Azim claimed that if the death penalty had been levelled agaist 500 Mubarak supporters or police officers, neither human rights organizations nor the U.S. State Department would have said a thing. Al-'Azim called the criticism of the sentence a plot by the international organization of the MB, which he claims is funded by the EU, with the aim of harming the Egyptian military and destroying Egypt.
Additionally, Margaret Azer, head of the Free Egyptians Party founded by Coptic tycoon Naguib Sawiris, backed the Egyptian legal system and claimed that the attack on it was part of an organized move against state institutions, and that anyone calling the Egyptian legal system policitized is either ignorant or an agent. She said that the Egyptian street believes that the sentence should have been arrived at earlier and that in any case it is based on the penal code and was not invented by the judicial system.
Also, Mustafa Gamal, a member of the Alliance of Revolutionary Youth, said that in light of the spread of the MB's crimes it was correct to hand down a deterrent punishment to the defendants who fled (i.e. the ones tried in absentia), since such a punishment would serve as a warning to anyone thinking about carrying out further terrorist actions.
Egyptian poet 'Abd Al-Mu'ti Higazi, who is known to be critical of Egypt's lack of separation between religion and state, supported the verdict. He wrote in Al-Ahram: "This collective criminal behavior... is unfamiliar to us. It is as if we are facing an entire generation of murderers and terrorists who violate the simplest values and laws followed not only by us, but by all people... Yes, an entire generation or a large part of it – hundreds and thousands of youths protesting and conducting sit-ins in the universities, mosques, streets, and squares, carrying weapons, making bombs and mines, shooting at police, blowing up buildings, torching churches and cars – not in one tumultuous moment after which they flee, but day after day, Friday after Friday, month after month...
"How was this generation brought up? What kind of education did it receive for it to declare war on everything – on state and society, on law and morality, on the institutions that educate it and on the buildings that shelter it? What religion or faith recruited it and pushed it to participate in our wholesale killing, the result of which is the prosecution and sentencing to death of hundreds of [this generation's] youths?...
"We know, of course, that they belong to the terrorist MB... They accuse the state and society of apostasy because the state does not implement the shari'a... They oppose separation of religion and politics... They want to revive the caliphate and demand that rights and obligations be based on religious affiliation, and that there be discrimination between Muslims and non-Muslims... These men who stand in rows, wear the red garb of the condemned, and await their turn at the gallows – are they criminals or victims?!"
Fouad Iskandar, columnist for the daily Al-Wafd, dismissed U.S. criticism of the mass sentencing, saying: "The name of Judge Sa'id Youssef Muhammad [Sabri], president of the criminal court in Minya [who sentenced the MB members to death] will go down in the annals of the Egyptian legal system with an aura of light and respect for his courage, determination, and perseverance, and for his immediate implementation of the law in accordance with the spirit of the law and nothing else. Congratulations, your honor, and congratulations to us for [the good fortune of having] you...
"Anyone who truly loves Egypt praised the sentence, but we have found some opponents to it... Once the [court] in Minya issued the sentence, the Obama administration and its supporters in Europe and elsewhere did not hesitate to attack its 'cruelty' and 'lack of legal justice.' Here I wish to ponder the 'American justice system.' Where was [this justice] a few years ago, when hundreds of black people were killed in San Francisco while protesting their impoverished situation [sic]. Even before that, I think about the 'American justice' decision about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, [that sentenced] the residents of these two cities to death by dropping atomic bombs on them. Those who defend this despicable action might say that it was necessary in the circumstances of war at the time, and to protect thousands of American soldiers... This makes us ponder out loud – isn't Egypt in a 'state of war' against terrorism? Moreover, is spilling the blood of our soldiers and sons and [destroying] our property permitted, while sentencing a handful of terrorists to death is forbidden?..."
Cover of the official weekly Al-Musawwar: MB executions; court sentences against terrorism (source: Al-Musawwar, Egypt, March 26, 2014)
While most of the pro-regime media defended the sentence, its harshness evidently created some cracks in the media consensus. This was expressed in several critical pieces by writers generally associated with the current regime.
Renowned Egyptian author Alaa Al-Aswany, who was among the harshest critics of the military regime after Mubarak's ouster but later became a supporter of Gen. Al-Sisi and for months refrained from criticizing him, wrote a fiery piece condemning the mass death sentence and the current regime's policies in general. In his column in the pro-regime daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, he wrote: "The interim regime could have taken real steps to ensure democratic transition. They could have guaranteed freedom of expression, applied the law to everyone, and respected the new constitution on which the Egyptians have agreed. Had the regime acted this way, the entire world would have had to recognize Egypt's democratic experience – but the regime actually did the opposite of what it should have.
"[The regime] conducted indiscriminate mass arrests, took oppressive measures, and then issued an unconstitutional protest law that violates human rights, using it to arrest hundreds of civilians [and sentence them to] several years [in prison] merely for attending a protest. Several youths are even spending years in prison merely for raising a sign urging voters to oppose the constitution. Later, in all due respect, one judge sentenced 528 defendants to death after only two court sessions.
"After [all this], when human rights organizations criticize the oppression in Egypt, should we see it as some grand plot against us [as the regime says], or [instead] blame the government, which gained power due to the will of the revolution, and then alienated [that revolution] and revived Mubarak's oppressive policy[?]...
"In the shadow of the conspiracy theory, there is no room for other opinions. There is [only] one view that looks after the interests of the homeland – which, of course, is that of the leader. The patriotism of anyone who strays from or disagrees with [that view] is questioned, and he is considered an enemy fifth column or part of a terrorist sleeper cell.
"What is happening in the Egyptian media now is unique in the world. Some TV shows have become investigators and courts, sentencing people live on the air. Some presenters have become political preachers who spend hours talking viewers into memorizing the proper official line, while distorting the image of anyone who thinks differently...
"Egypt is fighting a wave of criminal terrorism... [but] you cannot eliminate terrorism with oppression, only with justice... Egyptians have changed thanks to the revolution, and they will accept no more tyranny, under any name. Our only path to the future is to implement democratic steps that establish a lawful state..."
Another critic of the sentence was Nader Bakkar, spokesman for the Al-Nour Salafi party, which supported Al-Sisi's ousting of Mursi. He wrote in his column in the daily Al-Shurouq: "No reasonable person disputes the severity of the crime committed [by MB supporters] in Minya, especially since it was caught on camera and seen by millions. Those same reasonable people also do not dispute that it is unreasonable to accuse hundreds of people of committing this crime, and sentencing all of them to death...
"The court's decision [to execute over] 500 defendants… is fundamentally contrary to the practices of the Egyptian justice system... This surprising decision [to hand down this mass sentence] was taken after only two court sessions, the first of which was procedural, and no time was allowed for the presentation of physical evidence or a proper defense – which is the legitimate right of every defendant…
"We are not such a cruel, primitive society that we should operate on the principle of abandoning an entire sector, even if some members of it clearly committed murder, incited violence, or terrorized [peaceful] civilians... Who will gain from the terrorizing, the increase in hatred, and the threat to what remains of the fragile social peace?..."
Another critical response by a regime supporter came from Coptic tycoon Naguib Sawiris, who tweeted: "I know that we mustn't criticize court rulings, but no conscionable person can be happy with a death penalty so swiftly levelled against 529 people."
The MB and their supporters were outraged at the sentence and feared similar sentences in the future. Pro-MB students protested on campuses across the country. On its website, the movement posted a statement saying: "The military coup has once again revealed its true face and has proven that it is an enemy of the Egyptian people, an enemy of life, an enemy of justice, freedom, and democracy. It has exploited state institutions [to achieve] the opposite of the purpose for which they were established. It has exploited the media to mislead the public; it has exploited the military and police to kill the people and spill its blood in massacres unmatched [even] by the foreign occupier; and here it is exploiting the legal system to carry out a new collective elimination...
"This mass sentencing only heightens the resolve and determination of the revolutionaries to continue their attempts to topple the coup [regime] and to bring all those who committed crimes against the Egyptian people to justice and to a just punishment.
"With these death sentences, the murderers who carried out the coup are aiming to sway the Egyptian revolution from its peaceful conduct [and to turn it violent] – but, Allah willing, this will not happen. Our revolution will continue peacefully. This oppression, injustice, and aggression will only increase our perseverance, our steadfast position, and our determination to defeat the bloody military coup and restore our freedom, honor, and sovereignty..."
Huda Ghaniya, a member of the MB's Freedom and Justice Party, wrote on the party's website: "With the transfer of the 529 dossiers of supporters of legitimacy [i.e. Mursi's presidency] to the mufti via the Minya criminal court [for review], we should ponder this sentence:
"1. Yes, the justice system is one of the main [tools used by] the coup, and one of [its] most important means of [exerting] power. We must pay close attention to this, lest we forget the root of the campaign [against the coup]. The campaign is not against the legal system and its rulings, but rather against the counter-revolution [to the January 25 revolution] itself. Never forget this.
"2. With this death sentence for a historically unprecedented number of people... the initiators of the coup [against Mursi] wish to convey several messages, including: a) Taunting the revolutionaries and trying to make them deviate from their peaceful [protest] – but this cannot happen. The youth have learned the lesson and understood that their nonviolence is more powerful than bullets; b) Attempting to intimidate protestors with harsh sentences... c) Trying to frustrate revolutionaries by showing them that the coup initiators have a subordinate court system that issues the sentences that they want. [These coup initiators] have yet to learn the lesson that revolutionaries grow stronger in their faith in Allah daily, and that victory is from Allah...
"3. These [death] sentences cannot distract us from the most important matter, which is exposing the crimes of the bloody military coup, the struggle against it, and the restoration of legitimate [rule]..."
However, some MB supporters actually perceived this mass death sentence as a lifeline to their movement, because of the resulting criticism of the Egyptian regime and the local and international expressions of solidarity with the MB. Taha Khalifa, a columnist for the daily Al-Misriyyoun, which has supported the MB since it was removed from power in July 2013, wrote: "Had the MB spent one billion Egyptian pounds in a single day on propaganda posters in media across the globe to say that they are oppressed, with the aim of gaining solidarity and moral and political support, it would never have had the result that this [mass] death sentence has had – and all without spending one single pound.
"The world – countries, human rights organizations, the UN, and the media – have not agreed on any [aspect] of the Egyptian crisis lately as they agreed on this sentence, which astonished them and led them to condemn it. Furthermore, the MB and its enemies in [Egypt] have never agreed as they agree [today] in their astonishment at this sentence. The MB has received widespread expressions of solidarity, and a new lease on life. It has proven to its supporters and its sympathizers, both inside and outside Egypt, that the attacks on it are aimed at uprooting it, that the problem is bigger than the ouster of a president and an MB regime that had not even a full year [in power], and that it is being attacked as a stream with history and roots...
"With this bizarre and unprecedented sentence, [the judge] has done the MB a great service – because [the sentence] has triggered solidarity with it and given it new lungs to breathe with, while it confronts the regime and sectors in society...
"The harshness [of the sentence] lies in its goal, which is to exclude a particular stream and damage the image, the independence, and the fairness of the judicial [system]. This must be rectified post-haste. A justice [system] is a necessity, and it must be upheld, but only as long as it is committed to international standards and to the honorable history of the Egyptian judiciary.
"The sentence will [surely] be rescinded. There is a consensus regarding a retrial, for many judicial and procedural reasons. But the mark [of shame] will remain on the judiciary's forehead, [because the annals] will say that it handed down this sentence on a particular day. That is, [the mark of shame] will never, ever be eradicated, even if the wording is changed or completely withdrawn, and even if all the accused are exonerated..."
Website of the "Stop the Mass Execution" petition (source: Avaaz.org, March 27, 2014)
Protests against the mass death sentence in Europe (source: Fj-p.com, April 20, 2014)
*L. Lavi is a research fellow at MEMRI.
© The Middle East Media Research Institute All Rights Reserved.
 In January 2013, Judge Sa'id Youssef Sabri exonerated all 10 security personnel on trial for killing demonstrators in Beni Suef province during the January 25, 2011 revolution.
 Some sources put the number of MB members sentenced to death at 528.
 On March 18, 2014, the Egyptian court handed down much lighter sentences for four police officers accused of murdering 37 and wounding eight supporters of ousted Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi on a bus taking prisoners to Abu Za'bel prison in August 2013. One was sentenced to 10 years in prison and the rest to a year on probation. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 5, 2014.
 Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), March 24, 2014.
 Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 26, 2014.
 Reuters, March 25, 2014.
 Ahram Online, March 27, 2014.
 Reuters, March 25, 2014.
 Alarabiya.net, April 3, 2014.
 Avaaz.org/en/stop_mass_execution_loc, March 27, 2914.
 Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 26, 2014.
 Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), March 29, 2014.
 Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 2, 2014.
 Al-Wafd (Egypt), March 30, 2014.
 Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 7, 2014.
 Al-Shurouq (Egypt), March 28, 2014.
 Twitter.com/NaguibSawiris, March 25, 2014.
 Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 27, 2014.
 Ikhwanonline.com, March 24, 2014.
 Fj-p.com, April 3, 2014.
 Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), March 26, 2014.