The Death Sentence: Consequences of Taking the Wrong Path [Part II]

The repercussions of sentencing hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death have mostly been negative. The positions of international officials towards what happened may give a sense of the scale of the extremely negative reaction to these events. For example, Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, expressed that he was “alarmed” by the rulings. Moreover, a number of countries released strong statements, as in the case of the German government, which went as far as demanding that the rulings be rescinded. The situation has become more complicated recently as more verdicts are returned, most notably the ban on the activities of the April 6 Movement and closing of its headquarters. Apart from the legal ramifications of these verdicts, and notwithstanding that these capital punishments were handed down for very real crimes of terrorism that are a glaring attack on the law and on society, the repercussions of these verdicts seem clearer domestically than abroad. They are likely to unfold over both the short and long terms.

Undoubtedly, the most important result of these rulings has been a deepening of the crisis of trust for state institutions. This is especially true for the security forces and judiciary, since these institutions were responsible for the case’s legal trajectory, from arresting and charging the suspects, to handing down their sentences. Perhaps the issue here is more sensitive for the judiciary, since the courts are supposed to be the last resort and highest authority for law enforcement. It is less sensitive for the security forces, long seen as a source of oppression and violation of the law. The greatest risk is that some citizens, namely the Muslim Brotherhood and any opposition to the current regime, should lose all confidence in the judiciary. That would mean the collapse of the rule of law, which fundamentally depends on the presence of nonpartisan, professional institutions able to solve conflicts and manage public affairs in a way that transcends religious and partisan disagreements. This all confirms that since 2011, Egypt has been in dire need of a new criminal justice system. This system should within a comprehensive framework of transitional justice, and must—in light of this exceptional and historic period—enforce the law amongst all citizens with equality, justice, and efficacy.

Accordingly, in defense of these capital sentences the Egyptian government released a number of statements, which asserted repeatedly that the Egyptian judiciary was independent, that no other power had intervened in judicial affairs, and that recent verdicts had been announced only by the judges themselves. If this is the case, it would give reason to examine the issue of judicial independence through the following two lenses: First, is the independence of the judiciary an end of itself, or is it a means to an end, a way of achieving justice by guaranteeing that judges are not subject to outside influence? Secondly, to what extent should the judiciary be independent?

The immediate political result of these verdicts has been the widening of the gap between state institutions, on one hand, and the Islamist political movement, with the Muslim Brotherhood at its forefront, on the other. This means that the door to peace and social stability will remain shut—perhaps quite tightly—for what could be for a while longer. Social peace will only be realized if we can come to mutual understanding and consensus—reconciliation, in the words of some—over Egypt’s current political conflict and social polarization.

Some people, especially those extremists who believe in violence as a means of effecting societal change, might adopt these verdicts as an excuse to bring about even more chaos and disorder in Egypt, committing more acts of violence of the sort Egypt has seen for nearly a year. What is certain is that this wave of violence, which originally targeted Egyptian security forces and law enforcement officers, has left hundreds dead and wounded, began on July 3 last year. Its perpetrators have made terrorism their prime means of sending a message to the state after the removal of former President Mohamed Morsi. The state, in turn, has fought back with death sentences from the judiciary (itself a state institution). The response has been yet more killing and destruction. Undoubtedly, responding with violence instead of negotiation will only increase the bloodshed and condemn the prospects of peace and social stability.

Yussef Auf is a nonresident fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. His work focuses on Egyptian constitutional issues, elections, and judicial matters. He has been a judge in Egypt since 2007.

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Image: Relatives and families of members of Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Mursi react in front of the court in Minya, south of Cairo, after hearing the sentence handed to Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie and other Brotherhood supporters April 28, 2014. An Egyptian court handed down a death sentence to Badie, the Brotherhood's general guide, and 682 supporters, intensifying a crackdown on the movement that could trigger protests and political violence ahead of an election next month. (Photo: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)