A Staggering Death Sentence

The numbers:

An Egyptian judge on March 24 sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters (147 in custody, the rest at large) to death for the killing of one police officer—in the largest capital punishment conviction in modern Egypt. Though the sentences can still be appealed, they offer a stark illustration of the depths to which Egypt’s political conflict has plunged.

Magdi Abdelhadi calls the decision “preposterously self-defeating”:

[M]ost observers will conclude that the verdict is political, designed to send a message to the Brotherhood and its backers abroad – in Cairo this usually means Turkey and Qatar, which have made no secret of their unwavering support for the Brotherhood– that the Egyptian state is still in no mood to compromise with the Islamists: surrender or annihilation.

But coming down with a sledgehammer on anything that moves makes the government look more like a raging bull than a confident operator playing by the rules. It also adds to perceptions of the Brotherhood in the outside world as clear victims, despite the fact that government action against the Islamists still enjoys broad support in Egypt itself.

McBain was repulsed by the reaction within Egypt:

So is the judge Saeed Elgazar acting on a personal grudge against Morsi’s Islamist party, or is he coming under political pressure? This isn’t clear, but what is more evident, and deeply disturbing is that several Egyptian news channels welcomed the verdict. One TV presenter argued yesterday that: “The state cannot meet violence with violence? What should it meet it with? A wedding procession? Ball gowns?”

Lucia Ardovini and Simon Mabon add historical context:

What must be remembered is that what is happening in Egypt is not new but can be traced back to several previous periods in recent history. This cycle of Islamist engagement within politics followed by violent repression also occurred under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. What is clear is that the Muslim Brotherhood faces the most severe challenge to its long-term stability since the time of Nasser.

Anna Newby believes that Egypt won’t actually kill all the convicted Muslim Brotherhood members:

The convicted group can appeal the ruling, and legal experts say the case is likely to be overturned or rejected by the Grand Mufti, the country’s official authority for issuing religious edicts, who reviews all capital punishment sentences. The court determined that a final verdict would be issued on April 28. In any case, the idea that Egypt would actually execute the 529 people it sentenced to death today is far-fetched. A state execution on that scale would be unprecedented, and as Karim Medhat Ennarah of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights points out, it would be impossible to prove that each of the 500 people had a significant part in the killing of a single police officer. He adds: “Clearly this is an attempt to intimidate and terrorize the opposition, and specifically the Islamist opposition.”

Juan Cole weighs in:

Among Middle Eastern countries, the most execution happy is Iran, with over 300 a year. With just one trial, Egypt has made itself more Draconian than Iran.

And it appears to be just the beginning:

Update from a reader:

This seems minor, but it strikes me as odd: It seems that the Guardian and McBain both called the judge who handed down the sentence “Saeed Elgazar” (or in the case of some Guardian articles, “Saeed Youssef Elgazar”). The problem: “Saeed Elgazar” in Arabic literally translates to “Happy the Butcher.” I thought this was awfully poetic, so I searched for the name in Arabic sources. All I could find as far as clear references to him were in Brotherhood-related sources; the relatively reputable Almasry Alyoum, for its part, gave his name as simply “Saeed Youssef” in its original article on the sentencing (article is in Arabic). I suspect we may have a bit of Brotherhood spin leaking out. If I am wrong and that is his name, of course, it is delightfully if darkly poetic.