Like something out of a campy 1940s horror film, the dead are rising in Egypt and they’re terrorising the population. In the latest appalling decision by the Egyptian judiciary, Mohamed Morsi was convicted on charges of plotting a daring 2011 prison escape with help from Hamas, and also on additional charges of conspiring with foreign agents against the nation during his short-lived presidency.
According to a Palestinian official in Gaza, however, three of Morsi’s alleged co-conspirators had been dead for several years by the time Morsi committed the offences for which he received the death penalty on Saturday.
In a case of death imitating art, the “mummy theory” appears to have swayed the panel of judges in an Egyptian court whose rulings manage to reach new lows on an almost daily basis.
Once again, a perplexed global audience watched in awe as a mass death sentence was handed down to over 100 people in a trial that never met even minimal standards of evidence or the basic requirements of due process.
As with the countless politicised trials affecting thousands of Egyptians since the July 2013 coup that made the military the sole arbiter of power, there is a different notion of “justice” currently at work in Egypt.
It is one that seeks redress against any and all forces viewed as complicit in the mass protests of January 2011 that unseated Hosni Mubarak and the attempted transition towards a more representative form of government in the two years that followed.
In its bid to reaffirm the resurgent authoritarian system with which it aims to govern Egypt, the military regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has seen fit to end any illusions that there continues to be a popular revolution in Egypt, or that there was ever one at all. Despite its seemingly arbitrary nature, this process is in fact quite deliberative in both its choice of targets and the ferocity with which it pursues them.
Any forces in society with the capacity for influencing popular sentiment or mobilising public support have been incorporated into the regime’s overarching “war on terror” narrative. Neutralising the regime’s opponents in this way requires the creation of broad sweeping conspiracies and the construction of fictitious linkages.
In the early moments after the coup, the state wasted no time in shutting down all independent media outlets viewed as hostile to the military’s takeover. In the months that followed, not only was Al Jazeera targeted for its continued critical coverage, but when Egyptian authorities arrested several of the network’s personnel, they charged the journalists in a conspiracy case that targeted leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Also named in the list of defendants sentenced to death was Yusuf al-Qaradawi, possibly the most prominent religious authority in the Sunni Muslim world.
The court proceedings demonstrated nothing but the most spurious connections between the defendants, but the case (which continues to drag on through the courts) has succeeded in drastically curtailing the ability of the media to report on the extent of the repression in Egypt or to give voice to those who continue to call for revolutionary change.
Potential sources of trouble
Similarly, the Morsi cases have incorporated activists, religious scholars, and academics – all potential sources of trouble for an aspiring dictatorship.
Sondos Asem was the only woman and one of the youngest people sentenced to death in Saturday’s court hearing. She served as one of the spokespersons for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and edited its website. Her work was emblematic of Egypt’s revolutionary moment and the hope it expressed through an eloquent and passionate youth movement. The bulk of the 41,000 political prisoners currently occupying the country’s jail cells represent young activists whom the regime has sought to weaken and silence through intimidation and violence.
Also named in the list of defendants sentenced to death was Yusuf al-Qaradawi, possibly the most prominent religious authority in the Sunni Muslim world. Although he lived in exile for decades, Qaradawi has maintained tremendous influence on religious discourse in Egypt and became increasingly politicised during the Arab uprisings. He delivered an impassioned Friday sermon in Tahrir Square just days after Mubarak’s removal and became one of the most outspoken critics of Sisi following Morsi’s overthrow.
It is worth noting that for all of the regime’s accusations that the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters cynically use religion for their own political ends, Sisi has also frequently employed religious imagery in justifying his accession to power. He has since used that power to promote a particular interpretation of Islam and has aimed to make the country’s religious establishment more directly accountable to the state. Perhaps fittingly, the decision to enforce the death sentence against Morsi rests with Egypt’s highest religious figure, the grand mufti.
In the course of its widespread repression of Egyptian civil society, the regime specifically targeted academia as an important sphere of civic organisation and popular mobilisation. After Morsi’s removal, Egypt’s universities emerged as a primary location of anti-coup protests. The regime reacted swiftly by imposing university guards for the first time in decades and passing draconian laws permitting the expulsion of faculty and students for their political beliefs or activities.
Assault on academic freedom
Further symbolising this assault on academic freedom was the regime’s indictment of Emad Shahin, a highly accomplished professor of political science who has taught at the American University in Cairo and Georgetown University.
Though currently living abroad, Shahin was nonetheless also convicted and sentenced to death in the espionage case. For those who know him or follow his work, Shahin has consistently displayed an unwavering commitment to his principles and the intellectual depth vital to their advancement.
In a statement released following the court’s ruling, he wrote: “For over two years, the army and security agencies have staged a counter-revolution against all those associated with the January 25 Revolution, combating the aspirations of Egyptians for building a free and democratic society. Agencies that are supposed to serve the people are instead oppressing them. As an independent academic and scholar, I will continue to uphold and defend democratic values, human rights and national reconciliation. These are the exact values that Egypt needs at the moment to chart a peaceful course in the future.”
The latest death sentences handed down demonstrate plainly that the regime seeks to take not only the lives of these defendants, but also the freedom of all its citizens to dissent.
Abdullah Al-Arian is assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service in Qatar and author of Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.