The mass death sentences against 683 Egyptians reveal how Cairo officials are redefining concepts like terrorism and freedom in a cynical bid to solidify their grip on power.
- By Steven A. CookSteven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of the upcoming book Thwarted Dreams: Violence and Authoritarianism in the New Middle East.
Egyptian officials will respond to the storm of criticism over the mass death sentences handed down to 683 Egyptians and the banning of the April 6 Movement — a youth movement that was influential in the 2011 uprising — by doing what they always do. They will insist that the country’s judiciary is independent from political forces, and that judges are merely following the letter of the law in handing down harsh sentences. Egypt, in this version of reality, is actually a country where rule of law is paramount.
Top Egyptian officials are already touting their progress, despite the ominous news coming from the country. "I’m actually quite proud of the constitution — I think by any account it’s a very significant transformation, especially on issues of civil liberties," Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy declared in Washington on the same day that the mass death sentences were handed down. "Whether they relate to gender equality, freedom of expression and religion, it is an extremely progressive framework that essentially invites Egyptians to come together."
Of course, Egypt’s senior diplomat and his spokespeople are paid to put Egypt in the best light, not to wrestle with the idea that Egypt’s legal system is rigged in a way to benefit a dominant elite. This is an old story, but the recent court rulings show just how far the rule of law has deteriorated — and how Egyptian elites have appropriated terms like terrorism, dissent, freedom, and progress for their own ends.
This may seem trivial, but when leaders purposefully distort a political vocabulary to justify their actions and existence, what hope do Egyptians have for building a more open and just political order? This willingness to employ a misleading discourse is how the country has reached a point where hundreds are sentenced to death in the name of a "war on terrorism," while even a group like the April 6 Movement, which supported the overthrow of former President Mohammed Morsi, can be outlawed on suspicion of espionage. All the while, Egyptian officialdom speaks with little irony of "progress" and assails foreign critics for not properly understanding "the Egyptian context."
The inevitable result of this state of affairs is the persecution of an ever-expanding array of enemies. For example, the trial of the "Al Jazeera Three" — journalists who have been jailed in Egypt since late December on terrorism charges. They are not terrorists, but rather employees of a television network that has become unpopular — even toxic — for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood. For Egyptians taking their cues from the current leadership and its press, however, this is terrorism.
The most serious disagreement between Egypt’s rival factions continues to be over — to no one’s surprise — the term coup d’état. This argument stretches back to the military intervention last July that ousted Morsi, but is emblematic of the divisions still plaguing Egypt today. For Egyptian elites and supporters of the new regime, the idea that Morsi’s ouster was the result of a coup is not only wrong, but also deeply offensive: How, they ask, could it be a coup if millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call the military out of the barracks?
However, neither the presence of large numbers of protesters calling for change nor the potential for violence makes the military’s intervention any less of a coup d’état. The literature on civil-military relations acknowledges — in one way or another — that coups are not strictly confined to the officer corps. Civilian support for a military intervention is, rather, critical to a coup’s success.
For many Egyptians, however, the use of the term "coup" has become a marker of support for the Muslim Brotherhood. To reject the label and assert instead that what happened last summer was an expression of the will of the people is the undeniable sign of support for former army chief and current presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Many Egyptians reject this dichotomy, of course, but the interim government, the government-friendly press, its supporters among the intellectual class, and Muslim Brothers all derive significant political benefit from framing the prevailing discourse around the semantic progression of coup, coup supporter, Muslim Brother, and terrorist.
The debate — if one can even call it that — over whether the military’s action constitutes a coup is clarifying, but in an altogether insidious way. It creates an "either you are with us or against us" political environment, which allows manipulation and intimidation free rein. Egyptian columnists, academics, and other observers in Egypt and abroad are subject to the not-so-subtle threats of the Egyptian state to toe the line or suffer the consequences.
This is eerily similar to the atmosphere the state fostered in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, which destroyed Egypt’s intellectual class and rendered talented thinkers into propagandists. The Muslim Brothers are no better, invoking fascism to describe supporters of Sisi. On balance, however, it is the government — which boasts far more resources at its disposal than the Brothers — that has cynically sought to divide society for the benefit of a political order that looks and feels suspiciously like the old one.
The politicization of language in Egypt has created the environment that makes the harsh government crackdown and monstrous media attacks on all forms of dissent possible. There are thousands of political prisoners currently in Egypt’s jails, restrictions on freedom of expression are becoming more severe, and new anti-terrorism laws have given the security forces additional powers to crack down on any form of popular dissent. All of these developments are proof of how Egypt, despite its leaders’ protestations to the contrary, has not progressed toward a more open and just order since Morsi’s ouster.
Egyptians fed up with endless uncertainty may care little about how political elites define objective reality, but it is at the heart of their country’s ongoing crisis. Egyptian leaders’ redefinition of terms like coup and dissent is central to a broader, divisive political strategy, portending a grim and undemocratic future for Egypt. The sham trials that make headlines today indicate what to expect from the Egyptian political system, as authorities use any and all means necessary to establish control.