The Egyptian government took its crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood to a whole new level on Monday, when a court sentenced 529 members of the outlawed organization to death — the biggest mass sentence in the modern history of the country.
The defendants — supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi, who is also on trial separately — were charged with the murder of one police officer and trying to kill two others during violence that followed anti-coup demonstrations last August.
The condemned men were also accused of storming a police station, inciting murder, and damaging property during clashes that flared up in the southern province of Minya following the violent dispersal of two Muslim Brotherhood protests in Cairo, during which up to 1,000 Morsi supporters were killed.
“The sheer level of repression since the coup is really remarkable, it’s unprecedented and not just in the kind of way that people use that word: it actually is unprecedented,” Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, told VICE News. “First you have what Human Rights Watch called the worst mass killing in modern Egyptian history and now you have the worst mass death sentence in modern Egyptian history.”
Supporters of the accused denounced a trial that lasted less than three days, during which lawyers were reportedly denied access to the court.
“This is mass murder, legalized mass murder,” Hamza Sarawy, a spokesperson for the pro-Morsi Anti-Coup Alliance, told VICE News. “People were denied entry into court, lawyers weren’t allowed to enter. This is an insight into how the judiciary system in Egypt works. It’s a total mess.”
Sarawy called the death sentence “total revenge against the Muslim Brotherhood.” He added that his brother is among hundreds of other pro-Morsi supporters on trial in Egypt.
“Probably he will be one of those handed another death sentence, I don’t know,” Sarawy said. “This is total insecurity, brutality, torture. My brother might be in their place tomorrow or in a week.”
On Tuesday, Mohamed Badie, the Brotherhood's supreme guide, as well as 682 others, will also face trial on charges of incitement to murder.
Three journalists from the Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera are also on trial in Egypt, where they have been held for 86 days after being accused of links to the Muslim Brotherhood and of spreading “false news.” On Monday, their trial was adjourned to the end of the month. “They might be sentenced to the same thing,” Sarawy added.
Families of the sentenced men protested the verdict outside the court, while students opposed to the military-backed regime staged a demonstration at Minia University, as shown in the video below.
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Students at Minia University protested the death sentences.
More demonstrations by Muslim Brotherhood members and their supporters are also planned for the days ahead.
“We will have very peaceful yet very powerful demonstrations for the next couple of days because of this verdict,” Sarawy said, dismissing the possibility that such protests might turn violent. “Violent protest is not an option.”
Some critics have indicated that the latest sentence — and the general crackdown — might be part of an effort by the regime to radicalize the brotherhood’s support base, inciting a violent response in an attempt to gain legitimacy.
That hasn’t happened so far, yet there are indications that some among the Brotherhood’s members and supporters might be growing restless.
“The challenge that the brotherhood’s leadership has been having since the coup is trying to keep their members in line with the organization’s non-violent approach,” Hamid said. “With most of the top leadership in exile you have a new generation of Brotherhood members playing a leadership role.”
Some younger members and supporters have been pushing for the organization to “do more” — and their impatience will likely be tested by Monday’s extraordinary sentence.
“Their philosophy is ‘protest protest protest, and don’t back down.’ That kind of revolutionary posture does come into conflict with the Brotherhood’s political conservatism,” Hamid explained. “The Brotherhood has never been a revolutionary organization, that’s not how they see politics, that’s not how they see change.”
'The US and the EU have acquiesced to the coup and to the subsequent crackdown; everyone knows that.'
Muslim Brotherhood supporters were not the only ones to respond with horror to the massive death sentence. Many in Egypt also compared this three-day trial to the ones of ousted president Hosni Mubarak and his entourage.
“For the past three years Mubarak has been in jail and what happened to his responsibility for killing protesters and giving those orders? Did he get a verdict?” Yasmin Galal, who called herself a “former activist,” told VICE News. “It sucks to see Mubarak and [former interior minister] Habib el-Adly unable to be tried for killing protestors while 529 people are being tried for killing one policeman.”
“Goodbye rule of law or integrity of the courts,” Galal added.
The sentenced men have a right to appeal the verdict before April 28, and some believe that the punishments could be reduced.
“There's a question of whether these sentences will actually be implemented, it’s unlikely that Egypt is going to go ahead with that,” Hamid told VICE News, citing widespread international condemnation. But he quickly added that the international response to the regime’s tactics had been hardly satisfactory and that Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent suggestion that the US might consider resuming aid to “one of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East” was an “embarrassment.”
“The US and the EU have acquiesced to the coup and to the subsequent crackdown; everyone knows that, and the Egyptian regime certainly knows that,” he said. “If there was a real, serious, international uproar and the international community outlined consequences for the Egyptian government, then they would have to be concerned, but quite honestly there’s little sign of that happening.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi