Few people were surprised when a Cairo court earlier this week handed down 20-year prison sentences to former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and a dozen other defendants for their roles in the arrest and torture of protesters outside the presidential palace 16 months ago. Field Marshal turned President Abdel Fattah El Sisi ousted Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood colleagues in a June 2013 coup and declared them banned terrorists. Ever since then, the Egyptian political system has steadily degenerated into ever harsher versions of the one-party, military-run security state that had defined the country since the armed forces first took power in 1952.
Hardly had the ink dried on the court’s verdict when the state pressed new charges against Morsi, this time accusing him of prodding his supporters in August 2013 — weeks after he was imprisoned — to hold illegal rallies, commit murder and disturb the peace. He will also be tried on treason charges that carry the death penalty. Other senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders have already been given death sentences, but this has only prodded their supporters to defy government bans on public demonstrations.
The specifics of the Morsi case are practically irrelevant because judicial punctilio and international human rights standards have steadily disappeared from the court system since the coup. More dominant has been the Sisi-era political priority of cementing the military’s return to total political control and eliminating any serious political challengers from both the Islamic right and the liberal-secular-democratic left.
In a fitting symbol of the regime’s determination to eliminate all opposition, this week also saw the banned April 6 movement of labor and human rights activists hold its annual meeting in a desert location west of Cairo, away from police control. It also awaits a court verdict on whether it merits designation as a terrorist group.
Egypt has recently witnessed other embarrassing spectacles such as death sentences meted out to hundreds of defendants in the death of a single police officer at a riot-scarred football game, international and Egyptian journalists indicted and imprisoned on trumped-up charges simply for reporting the news and tens of thousands of Egyptians being jailed largely for their leftist or Islamist sentiments rather than for committing material crimes.
The sad part about the judiciary being transformed into the handmaiden of the military in its resumption of power is that it removes the last barrier to total control of the military over Egyptian public life. Even during the autocratic decades of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, many judges and courts often retained the respect of citizens who otherwise had little confidence in state institutions.
The Morsi conviction issues a threefold message: First, Sisi and the military officers behind him will not tolerate any reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. Second, the full force of the judiciary’s capacity to imprison ordinary citizens and party leaders alike will be used for years to come. Third, democratic pluralism will have to wait indefinitely to regain a foothold in the country, given the military’s control of the courts, the media and the executive branch and its anticipated revival of an elected parliament that reflects the military’s preferences.
Sisi can implement this strategy for now because a majority of Egyptians continue to be fearful of how economic and security conditions deteriorated during the one-year rule of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood. They seem willing to sacrifice their hopes for participatory democracy in return for Sisi’s promise to restore to Egypt’s 85 million citizens their normal life and work opportunities, if not also a revived nationalistic grandeur. This looks today more like an impossible dream than anything else, given the sheer scale of the economic gains that need to be made simply to tread water. These include millions of new jobs — 1.5 million Egyptians are born every year — and tens of billions of dollars of foreign aid that must keep flowing in from friendly governments. More than 60 percent of new labor market entrants in Egypt go into the informal sector, which guarantees them a lifetime of poverty, vulnerability and probably misery.
He faces a deteriorating security situation that has seen Islamist militants in northern Sinai — some of whom have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant — expand their bombing and killing campaign into central Cairo. Thousands of disgruntled, unemployed youths with no serious life prospects are easy recruits for such movements.
The Morsi verdict’s message likely guarantees greater exclusion, polarization and disparities that will inevitably fuel political tension and militancy. Credible analyses by local human rights groups suggest that 40,000 or more Egyptians are being held in prison for their political beliefs, and some may well be put to death soon.
Egyptians will quickly discover that the scale of the challenge of meeting their basic human needs is well beyond the ability of a single ambitious leader to address. The best way for Egypt to save itself is through a political consensus that can tap the energy and creativity of a talented but now suppressed population. This would require political reconciliation and policy consensus among new independent parties or social movements that would represent the spectrum of political, social and religious values in the country. The Morsi verdict is particularly troubling because it rules out this path for the time being.