On December 26th 2017, 15 men were executed by the Egyptian military courts in the most prominent demonstration of capital punishment the nation had seen since its modern conception. The accused men had been convicted of militant activities after an attack on a military checkpoint in 2013, which had resulted in 8 deaths. The rhetoric behind the state’s response to their actions had been one of thwarting forces which sought to destroy domestic security. This was a decision made against a backdrop of turbulent violence due to a new wave of terrorism and radical Islamist insurgency in the Sinai region. The judicial process leading up to the executions was as nebulous as the authority’s reasons for carrying it out: the New York Times reported the many misdemeanours of the legal system which led to this sentence, such as evidence of torture being used on at least one detainee and the absence of opportunity for those accused to present an appeal.
Regrettably, this case seems to represent the norm of how the Egyptian courts deal with some cases and the two subsequent Tuesdays after the mass hanging were also marred with executions, resulting in 7 deaths since the beginning of 2018. Analysing these figures from a wider angle gives us a sense of the enormity of the Egyptian courts’ violations of human rights. Cornell University’s Centre on the Death Penalty Worldwide has placed the number of executions since 2014 at 97, a sharp increase from the 5 executions performed between 2010 and 2014. This steep rise in the state’s use of the death penalty has happened in step with the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. A former General who performed a coup in 2013 against the first post-Arab Spring leader in Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, Sisi went on to become the supposedly democratically elected President of the nation. Frequently condemned by international organisations and human rights groups for conducting Egypt in an authoritarian and militaristic fashion, the recent rise in executions has also captured the attention of disturbed observers; namely the United Nations, who have called for an end to this violation of human rights. But the Egyptian media’s reports of 186 death sentences being ruled by the national court in 2017 and the imminent prospect of President Sisi running, virtually unchallenged, in the March 2018 elections, do not inspire hope that a change in the state’s judiciary is imminent.
The recent string of executions and the Egyptian government’s aggressive implementation of the death penalty under President Sisi as a whole seem to point to a leader who is using every tool at his disposal to consolidate power. This is especially true given the present political scene in the run-up to this year’s elections: although the economic and social instability of the President’s first term did not promise his re-election, the fact that practically all political opponents (apart from Mousa Mostafa Mousa, leader of the Ghad party and Sisi supporter) have either dropped out of the polls or been incarcerated does. The Egyptian government’s prominent show of executions and this fraudulent example of a democratic election are inextricably linked, as the judicial system is used to both control and intimidate the public.
Framing executions as a necessary means to prevent terrorism and as an equitable punishment to the suffering these terrorists have caused is a method of controlling the populace through alleged action. It is also an intimidation tactic, acting as a tangible warning to voices which seek to oppose the government. Although executions present an acute symptom of the judicial failings in Egypt, it is not the only example of a system with a disregard for basic human rights. The mass incarceration of political prisoners, which include journalists, activists, politicians and protesters, reportedly reached 60,000 in 2017. Furthermore, these two techniques can be connected when we scrutinize the manipulation of the legal structure under President Sisi. Since 2015, new anti-terrorism laws in the regime have placed civil disobedience under the definition of terrorism in a ploy to enhance the legitimacy of using capital punishment against dissidents of the regime. A cyclical pattern between the intimidation and control is thus exposed and points to an abhorrence of human rights which goes beyond negating the right of life through the death penalty to an attempted assassination of the nation’s freedom of speech.
A call for the end of a normalisation of executions in Egypt must be voiced: to protect the democratic process, the fairness of the judicial system and the basic, human rights of every citizen.