Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Role of Egypt’s Judiciary in a Polarized Society

Muhammad Morsi in court trial, May 2015
Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi stands inside a defendant’s cage during his trial for insulting the judiciary, Cairo, Egypt, 23 May 2015 Photo Mostafa el-Shemy / Anadolu Agency

The judiciary has always played an important role in Egypt, but particularly since the January 2011 revolution. Following the events of 3 July 2013, when the Egyptian military ousted President Mohammed Morsi, the judiciary aligned itself with the new government in its fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, which had sought to curb the judiciary’s powers when it came to power. In doing so, the judiciary became another polarizing institution in a country already deeply divided.

A spate of rulings since then has sent ripples through Egyptian society. When, on 23 September 2013, a court banned the Muslim Brotherhood – from which Morsi hails – it paved the way for the designation of the group as a terrorist organization and a crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood members, thousands of whom were arrested and tried.

These trials followed a pattern that became all too familiar. Hundreds of suspects were tried together, many of them in absentia as Muslim Brotherhood members went into hiding or fled the country, and the judge handed down mass death sentences in cursory hearings. In March and April 2013 alone, a single judge in the Upper Egypt governorate of Minya sentenced 1,212 people to death in two different cases.

Mohamed Elmessiry, an Amnesty International researcher monitoring the trials, said they “lacked basic fair trial guarantees”. The hearings lasted only a few minutes before the sentences were passed, and the media and relatives of the defendants were banned from entering the courtroom. Several lawyers for the defendants boycotted the case, saying the judge refused to hear their arguments.The other suspects were given a life sentence, and the judge urged the prosecution to appeal and ask for the death sentence again.

The rapidly increasing number of death sentences has drawn sharp criticism from human rights organizations and world leaders including US President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “Mass death sentences are fast losing Egypt’s judiciary whatever reputation for independence it once had,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director of the NGO Human Rights Watch. “Instead of weighing the evidence against each person, judges are convicting defendants en masse without regard for fair trial standards.”

Most of the senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the group’s leader Mohamed Badie, were given death sentences in the two years following Morsi’s deposition, in several cases that were thrown together by the general prosecutor’s office. In May 2015, Morsi and several other members stood trial for “escaping from prison” during the January 2011 revolution and for “conspiring with a foreign state” – namely Qatar. Morsi’s co-defendants were sentenced to death for passing information to Qatar during the year the Muslim Brotherhood was in power. While Morsi was cleared of that particular crime, he received the death sentence for the alleged prison break, a sentence that caused concern among many Western governments.

Police rounded up anyone who expressed support for the Muslim Brotherhood, such as a yellow logo that became the symbol of a sit-in organized by the group after Morsi’s removal. Many of those arrested received quick verdicts of up to 17 years in prison.

While members of the Muslim Brotherhood usually found themselves at the receiving end of these harsh sentences, they were not the only ones. Many of the liberal activists who gained fame during and after the 2011 revolution were also arrested and accused of a raft of crimes.

Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent blogger and pro-democracy activist, was sentenced to five years for violating an anti-protest law passed after Morsi’s removal from office. Abdel Fattah’s sister was detained for the same crime. Ahmed Douma, an outspoken critic of the Muslim Brotherhood who took part in the 30 June protests that led to the party’s removal, was sentenced to life in prison along with 229 other defendants. He was also fined $2.2 million for setting fire to a science academy near Tahrir Square housing rare manuscripts.

Douma reacted to his sentence by clapping ironically, the BBC reported, to which the judge responded: “Are you in Tahrir Square? Don’t talk too much or I’ll give you three more years.” Many activists regard the sentences as the new regime’s heavy-handed attempt to discourage further uprisings and crush dissent.

One judge in particular has achieved near celebrity status. Mohammed Nagi Shehata has presided over several high-profile cases, earning a fearsome reputation for the severity and speed of his rulings – an anomaly in a country where court cases often drag on for years. In December 2014, he sentenced 188 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death for an attack on a police station in the village of Kerdasa on 14 August 2013, in which around a dozen officers were killed.

Among the others Shehata sent down were three Al-Jazeera English journalists who accused of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and falsifying news. Although the evidence presented to the court, including family photos, a video of trotting horses, a documentary about Somalia and a pop music video, was flimsy and widely criticized, two of the journalists were sentenced to seven years in jail and the third to ten years for having a spent bullet casing in his pocket, which he says he found on the ground at a protest. In the same trial, three other journalists, two British and one Dutch, were sentenced to ten years in prison in absentia.

The case provoked global outcry and calls for the journalists to be freed. International pressure led to the release and deportation of Australian Peter Greste on 1 February 2015. The other two men, Canadian-Egyptian Mohammed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohammed, were released on bail pending retrial two weeks later, after more than 400 days in jail.

At the same time that the judiciary has filled Egypt’s prisons with political opponents and activists, it has overseen the release of most of the leading figures of Hosni Mubarak’s regime who were imprisoned after the revolution in 2011. In November 2014, Mubarak himself was cleared of conspiring to kill hundreds of protesters during the uprising that ended his rule. In the same case, the court also acquitted Mubarak’s two sons, his interior minister and subordinates, effectively allowing them to walk free. In January 2015, a court overturned the conviction for embezzlement of public funds against Mubarak and his two sons. It was the last case keeping the former president behind bars.

The verdict drew a small protest from young people angry to see Mubarak released, especially as many of their friends were still behind bars. The protest was tolerated for a short while before being violently dispersed by police. The case was retried in May 2015 and Mubarak and his sons were sentenced to three years in prison and a $14 million fine. However, the time the men had already served in pre-trial detention was counted towards the sentence and they were released.

When Sisi’s justice minister, Mahfouz Saber, resigned amid outrage over classist remarks he made, he was replaced by judge Ahmed al-Zind, a fierce opponent of the January 2011 revolution. Previously head of the Judges’ Club, a powerful organization that acts as the unofficial syndicate of judges, he openly supported Mubarak and rejected any reforms to the judiciary. His appointment on 20 May 2015 further angered activists, who saw it as one more nail in the coffin of their revolution.

An increasing number of analysts have spoken out against the judiciary, predicting even harsher sentences under al-Zind as the judicial system becomes one more tool in the regime’s arsenal against the Muslim Brotherhood and voices of dissent, whether Islamist or liberal. However, criticizing the judiciary or the sentences it passes is illegal in Egypt. The law was introduced to ensure the independence of the legal system, but it may now be used to punish those deemed “enemies of the regime and the state”.

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