Egypt has been wracked by unrest since the Arab Spring first hit there three years ago, ousting longtime president Hosni Mubarak. But the mass death sentences handed down on Monday against up to 529 alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood is an unfortunate sign that stability in that important nation remains elusive.
Given Egypt’s long-standing peaceful relations with Israel and as the most populated country in the Middle East, it is a key player in one of the world’s most volatile regions. Its future is of enormous importance to the United States and Israel.
As is true with any nation torn by sectarian violence, many people in Egypt have reasons for wanting revenge. Since Egypt’s second Arab Spring, in which the military ousted democratically elected leader Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood has been accused of instigating widespread violence particularly aimed toward Coptic Christians, whose churches have been torched. In one two-day span following Morsi’s ouster last year, the Assyrian International News Agency reported 82 Christian churches were torched, including some whose construction dated to the fifth century.
Such atrocities demand justice. But what happened in an Egyptian courtroom Monday was not justice. Rather than ending the unrest, it is likely just to foment more of it.
News accounts differ as to whether 528 or 529 people were condemned to death for their support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Also unclear is whether, as some reports claim, the trial was held without allowing the defense to present a case. But the fact that the trial began on Saturday and hundreds of death sentences were handed down on Monday demonstrates that it did not conform to international standards. It would be impossible to conduct a fair trial of such magnitude in so little time.
Relatives of some of the condemned disputed whether they are, in fact, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. One, Essam Ahmed, is alleged by family members to be in a wheelchair and incapable of participating in violence.
Despite the convictions, 16 defendants were reported to have been acquitted, a defense attorney told Reuters. Only 123 of the convicted men are in custody, with many of the rest in hiding.
Observers say it is unlikely all the sentences would be carried out. If they were, it would be the largest mass execution in Egypt’s modern history. But with tensions as they are, and given how the Muslim Brotherhood remains popular with many Egyptians, it is difficult to guess to what lengths the military-led government will go. Hundreds of Brotherhood members already have died in street clashes with government security forces.
Only the rule of law, enforced by a credible police force and an independent judiciary that observes proper courtroom procedure, can restore order to Egypt. People need confidence that the government will protect the welfare and liberties of all its citizens.
The Obama administration, which lagged in its condemnation of the attacks against Christians, must raise a strong voice against atrocities that, regardless of which side is being hurt, will only keep the cycle of violence going.