Egypt's highest court for the first time has upheld the death penalty against a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, prompting fears that it won't be the last time.
The Court of Cassation ruling April 24 prompted objections from human rights groups and politicians.
Since July 2013, when current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led a coup to overthrow then-President Mohammed Morsi, the only related death sentences upheld have been against individuals alleged to have belonged to jihadi movements — but not against actual members of Morsi's Sunni Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, or even against Morsi himself.
In this context, the final ruling issued against Sheikh Fadl al-Mawla, an Islamist cleric accused of killing a taxi driver during the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in strike in 2013, has prompted many people to ask the most important question to be raised in four years: Will the regime officially carry out death sentences issued against the Brotherhood's members?
“Many of the Muslim Brotherhood members are awaiting the decisions that the Court of Cassation will soon take regarding their death sentences," said lawyer Khalaf Bayoumi, the head of the El-Shebab Center for Human Rights.
Part of the motive behind the question is the nature of Mawla’s case. Bayoumi, who has been closely following Muslim Brotherhood cases, said the ruling is “shocking and contrary to all legal norms and traditions.” He called the ruling “a continuation of the judiciary politicization that is taking place in Egypt,” and expressed concerns over the “political exploitation of the ruling, which could set the stage for similar verdicts."
Bayoumi explained to Al-Monitor what he considers to be “legal shortcomings in the verdict” and said, “The verdict was based on the testimony of one witness only, and this testimony was abnormally contradictory." The court disregarded a request by Mawla's lawyer to nullify the arrest because Mawla wasn't caught in the act. The court also disregarded the defense's information about the arrest operation that was "quite different from the story told by the criminal investigation agent," Bayoumi said. He also pointed out, "The death sentence is only applicable when there is an aggravating circumstance behind the intentional murder, and this was not the case.”
Many Muslim Brotherhood leaders and activists told Al-Monitor they have been expecting such an escalation as the 2018 presidential elections draw nearer. So far, they said, all deaths among former Brotherhood leaders were extrajudicial because of medical neglect or torture in prison. However, some people believe that even the sentences handed down by the Criminal Court should be considered "extrajudicial," alleging that politics, not justice, is the motivating factor.
"This issue reflects the mobilization practiced by the head of the regime, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, for the 2018 elections," Yasser Fathi, a political observer close to the Brotherhood, told Al-Monitor. "This is a trend in public policies, and it has been made clear by Sisi’s desire to show more dominance and rigor in dossiers related to the judiciary and Al-Azhar, which are institutions affiliated with the state.”
Fathi believes all indicators show the Muslim Brotherhood is being used as a scapegoat, especially at the political level. "The Brotherhood is always the category that is easy to target and blame for the failure to combat terrorism and other matters. We fear that Mawla might be executed at any time, and we feel that the danger will be more serious moving forward, especially amid the state of great anger within the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood at what is happening," Fathi said.
Al-Monitor spoke to Mawla's wife, who said her husband was targeted due to his “beard, religious appearance, advocacy activity and activity against the coup.” This, she said, would “help distort his image in the state media.” She believes her husband is a scapegoat, especially as none of those arrested with him received a death sentence. She said she was “shocked” when she heard the news with her five children.
Though the court upheld Mawla's death sentence, Ashraf Sharif, a comparative politics professor at the American University in Cairo, said, “It remains to be seen whether the sentence will be executed, especially considering that the law does not compel the authority to immediately implement the sentence and its execution could be delayed for years."
Sharif said judicial decisions in Egypt are often subject to individuals' motives and conspiracies, which could mean the court's decision "was not issued under the direct guidance of the regime.” However, “This does not negate the fact that the regime's decision to take escalatory measures against the Brotherhood has been indeed ongoing for some time.” The evidence of that escalation, he said, is the regime's rejection of reconciliation and "its repressive measures against what it calls ‘radical groups within the Brotherhood.'"
Sharif, who researches Islamic movements, said there are two approaches within the Egyptian state when it comes to dealing with the Brotherhood. "The first is based on eradication and is represented by Sisi, who wants to succeed in the areas that [Gamal Abdel] Nasser failed in and completely eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood, while the other approach favors the traditional [Hosni] Mubarak-state style, which is based on containment and calculated repression."
Al-Monitor asked Sharif if Egypt might be feeling less pressure regarding its use of the death penalty because of the new US administration. The previous administration would have been likely to criticize Egypt strongly, but perhaps Egypt feels its relations with the United States have improved under President Donald Trump. There have been Brotherhood reports of links between Sisi’s visit to the United States and the ruling, but Sharif said the Trump administration is unlikely to have affected the ruling.
The United States has been under pressure to decide whether to officially label the Brotherhood a terrorist group, but so far it has not weighed in on its leanings.
“Trump's administration has not yet decided on the Brotherhood matter, especially given the practical difficulty of declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group and having such a declaration serve as a reason to accept … executions against the group,” he added.
Meanwhile, Mawla’s family lives in hope that the ruling will be disrupted. His wife said, “We submitted a petition to the prosecutor general to quash the ruling amid the ongoing constitutional dispute over the law.”
Bayoumi said his legal center and lawyers submitted several complaints to the African Commission to stop the sentence from being carried out: "In a joint statement with several human rights organizations, we called on the international community to intervene and place pressure on the Egyptian regime to stop the implementation of the sentence."
Although it remains to be seen if the regime will weigh in publicly on the execution, there are Brotherhood activists who believe the regime could threaten to implement the ruling at any time, sending a political message to the group whenever it might consider supporting any presidential candidate running against Sisi.