Egypt: Justice on death row

On International Justice Day, we should take a moment to mourn the loss of justice in Egypt.

An Egyptian court has recently sentenced 25 activists to 15 years in jail [EPA]

While International Justice Day celebrates advancements in the international justice movement and the adoption of the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, it is also about strengthening national justice systems. In Egypt and other countries in the region, the highly politicised use of these national justice mechanisms has led to the emergence of a deeply troubling form of transitional justice. 

Transitional justice is usually regarded as a positive thing, a mechanism through which victims can access truth about past crimes and through which accountability for past atrocities following drastic political transitions is sought.   

In Egypt, however, transitional justice has been used to further entrench repressive rule.

A battered justice

Over the last year, the course of justice in Egypt has taken alarming, absurd and even comic turns. Earlier this year at a mass trial, the judge sentenced 683 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death – the largest mass death sentencing of its kind in recent times. The trial was a mockery of justice: It lasted eight minutes, the majority of defendants were absent, the judge did not review evidence, and defence lawyers were not allowed to cross-examine witnesses. The trial was presided over by Judge Saeed Yousef, fittingly also known as al gazzar, or “the butcher”.  Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands of alleged Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers and other opposition activists have been detained without trial.

A mere two weeks following the brutal dispersal of the Raba’a Al Adaweya sit-in, in which more than 600 protesters were killed by the military and police in August 2013, a stork was arrested on suspicion of carrying a spying device.  As if this was not enough, in perhaps the most bizarre development in Egyptian state security’s alleged attempts to fight terrorism, Vodafone officials were summoned for questioning regarding a television advertisement that featured a suspected puppet terrorist by the name of Abla Fahita. 

Then, of course, are the more recent trials of journalists, in which the absurd evidence presented included Gotye’s song “Somebody that I used to know” as well as footage of sheep. The journalists were sentenced to seven and ten years in prison on charges of terrorism and endangering national security. With a lack of evidence to prove these accusations, this trial was another slap in the face for the right to free speech in Egypt.

Soon after the two-year anniversary of the 2011 Mohammed Mahmoud protests, during which more than 45 people were killed in clashes between protesters and security forces in Cairo, the government issued a new protest law in which security forces are granted sweeping powers to ban protests through the use of lethal force. Largely aimed at both supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition activists, this protest law seeks to put an end to any kind of dissent and freedom of assembly.

It is a shocking affront to the spirit of the January 25 revolution and institutionalises the very same repression that ignited the protests that overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak. In a contradictory statement, current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said that he would step down should there be widespread protests demanding he do so – the very protests that he and his regime have effectively banned through this protest law.

Recently, 25 activists were sentenced to 15 years in prison for demonstrating against this protest law. Suffering from a serious lack of due process, this trial and many others before it have beaten justice to death in Egypt.

Too many to list in detail here – and many of these developments have been well documented elsewhere –  these are just a few examples that illustrate the monstrosity that is transitional justice in Egypt.

An authoritarian hijacking

A gaping hole in the pursuit of this paranoia-fuelled justice is the lack of accountability for the decades of crimes committed prior to the 2011 uprising – the very crimes that drove people to the streets to begin with. There has been a focus on crimes of the transition, as though the long history of human rights violations at the hands of state security and police never existed.

Together with the Egyptian judiciary, the military-backed regime has managed to press on with a form of transitional justice that is so badly abused and that will be catastrophic for criminal justice prospects in Egypt. Justice keeps dying, again and again, in a country that so badly needs it.  

A justice abused is quite simply not justice. A heavy silence – read acquiescence – continuously looms over the repeated battering of justice in Egypt. It is clear that a significant part of Egyptian society, whether it likes it or not, has largely come to accept this embattled form of justice.  This slow normalisation of the abuse of justice for political ends in Egypt has turned transitional justice on its head.

With few exceptions, Latin American countries underwent transitions that pushed the military back to the barracks and brought in civilian, democratic rule. Prosecutions of those responsible for the heinous crimes committed there are still ongoing, more than three decades later.

But not all transitions occur in liberalising contexts.  If there is a lesson to be learned from the Egyptian experience thus far, it is that we need to re-examine what is meant by transitional justice. Whose interests does it serve and who owns the process of transitional justice? What happens when the transition is from one authoritarian government to another? The use and abuse of justice and its implications for transitional justice in general needs to be put in the foreground if International Justice Day is to continue to celebrate advancements in the international justice movement. 

Justice has been sentenced to death in Egypt. Let’s hope it does not reach the gallows.

Noha Aboueldahab is a PhD Candidate at Durham University’s law school, where she researches the prosecution of political leaders in the Arab region. She has consulted for various United Nations agencies since 2004.

Follow her on Twitter: @NohaAboueldahab