How many Egyptians does it take to kill one policeman? Exactly 529, if they are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Judge Saeed Elgazar. That is the number of people Elgazar sentenced to death two days ago for the killing of a deputy police commander in the southern Egyptian city of Minya in August last year.
Capital punishment is a serious business, and no one can say the Judge reached this verdict lightly. On the contrary, he took this momentous decision after two days of careful deliberation. Given that there are 1440 minutes in a day, that would have allowed five minutes per each defendant for evidence to be presented and subjected to a rigorous defense and prosecution.
In fact the actual time span was considerably less. The Saturday session took forty-five minutes. The final session on Monday lasted five. Not much time to present a defense, but then no defense was required since no evidence was presented.
All that certainly speeded things up a bit, and made possible what appears to have been the largest number of death sentences ever handed out by a civil court in a single sitting.
Now some of you cynics out there might question the logistics of this alleged crime. Did the 529 defendants kill the policeman simultaneously? In which case one can only marvel at the disciplined choreography and use of physical space that enabled so many people to get close to their victim and kill him at the same time. Or was the unfortunate commissioner killed bit by bit – a gory business to be sure, but one which would at least have allowed the 529th person to play a part in the murder.
At least two of the accused deserve special commendation for their ingenuity. One was so disabled that he couldn’t walk. Another was in another town when the murder was committed.
Not surprisingly, this grotesque travesty has drawn widespread outrage, incredulity and mockery from within Egypt and across the world. Even the US, which supplies the Egyptian army with $1.3 billion of military aid, has declared itself ‘deeply concerned’ about the verdict. And State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf has condemned it as ‘ a flagrant disregard for basic standards of justice’ and declared that any implementation of the sentences would be ‘unconscionable’.
‘Unconscionable’ is one word that could be used, but one suspects that stronger language would have been found had these sentences been decreed by Gaddafi, or Assad say. But Egypt is a special case, as Harf reminded the world when she insisted that US ties with one of its key Middle Eastern allies remained important and that ‘We don’t want to completely cut off the relationship.’
We can be fairly certain that General Al-Sisi and his cronies are aware of that. Not all these sentences are likely to be carried out, but as many commentators have noted, the fact that they were decreed at all as a sinister declaration of intent by a regime that appears determined to wipe out the Muslim Brotherhood, both physically and politically, even if it becomes look viciously ridiculous in the process.
682 members of the Brotherhood are still to go on trial for various offenses including murder, and further death sentences may also result, including Mohammed Morsi himself.
This severity contrasts dramatically with the official response to the killing of at least 1,400 Muslim Brotherhood activists by the security forces following the military’s toppling of the Morsi government in July last year. Only last week a Cairo court tried four policemen for manslaughter and negligence, as a result of their involvement in a horrendous incident last August when 37 Muslim Brotherhood activists were gassed to death in the back of a police van. One police officer got ten years; his three companions were given suspended sentences.
These are, to my knowledge, the only prosecutions of military or police officers in connection with the events of last year. Anyone who believes that any of this will lead Egypt to a better or more democratic future is dreaming, but that was never the purpose of the whole enterprise. The Egyptian army doesn’t get $1.3 billion because of its commitment to democracy, but primarily because of its adherence to the Camp David Accords and its willingness to discipline its population in line with US/Israeli/Saudi strategic objectives in the Middle East.
Morsi’s government, for all its many faults, didn’t entirely comply with this agenda. Though it had begun to destroy some of the Gaza tunnels in its last months in office, it kept the Rafah crossing open and provided the beleaguered Palestinians with a vital lifeline to the outside world.
Al-Sisi’s mob have closed most of these connections. Earlier this month, the authorities announced that they had destroyed 1, 370 tunnels. That’s why it gets the $1.3 billion. That’s why the ‘Peace Envoy’ and reconciler of the world’s religious conflicts Tony Blair recently condemned the Brotherhood and called on the world to support a dictatorship that would ‘ take the country to the next stage of its development, which should be democratic.’
Should be, but don’t expect the Peacemaker or many who think like him to bothered if it isn’t. When the interim government designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a ‘terrorist organization’ last December, the US also ‘ expressed concern’ and suggested that the government might be ‘going too far’ – but it explicitly ruled out any punitive action in response.
So no one should be surprised that an Egyptian court has taken the lunatic decision to sentence 529 people to death.
It knows that it can.