Egyptian Court Sentences 75 People to Death for Participating in Nonviolent Sit-in

An Egyptian court sentenced 75 people to death this past Saturday for their participation in a 2013 sit-in. The sit-in was in support of former President Mohammed Morsi of the Islamic Brotherhood, who was overthrown in a coup led by current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Although initially peacefully, government forces violently dispersed protestors, and Human Rights Watch estimates that over 800 people were killed. The government plans to prosecute 739 people for their participation in the sit-in, while no members of the security forces have faced punishment.

Amnesty International has condemned the results of the trial, calling it “grossly unfair” and “a parody of justice.” Protestors were arbitrarily detained and imprisoned for longer than allowed under Egypt’s constitution. This violation of civil liberties reflects a larger trend of rights abuses under President al-Sisi. A new anti-terrorism law has greenlit authorities to target activists and journalists who are critical of the regime. Human Rights Watch reports that at least 60,000 people have been detained and hundreds sentenced to death since the 2013 coup. Security forces have also been allowed to act with near-total impunity. In addition to massacring civilians in 2013, authorities frequently use torture to punish or coerce detainees. The army has also engaged in unlawful destruction of homes and other buildings in Sinai as part of its campaign against the Islamic State.

While the massive human rights abuses and state-led violence is inexcusable, blame is not on al-Sisi alone. Nadim Houry,a director at Human Rights Watch, says that “Egypt is combining a bad law with unjust courts and the outcome has been predictably disastrous, as al-Sisi’s Western allies look the other way.” Just this week, the United States resumed military aid to Egypt, funneling $195 million into an abusive military. Al-Sisi has not shown any inclination to improve human rights practices and instead has continued to crackdown on dissidents. As such, the impetus now falls on supposedly-rights respecting countries to pressure Egypt into expanding protection for civil liberties. The US should not have resumed aid, and other countries should consider halting their own aid packages to force the government to change its course.

Al-Sisi’s current authoritarian practices mirror those of earlier president Hosni Mubarak, who was forced out of power in 2011. Egyptians protested against poverty and corruption, calling for fair and free elections that eventually resulted in Morsi’s election in 2012. Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, was then overthrown after one year in office. The coup was lead by al-Sisi, who was reelected this April in what many see as a sham election.

Egyptian law requires the case to be referred to the Grand Mufti, the country’s top Islamic authority. An annulment from the Grand Mufti could prevent the mass execution of hundreds of peaceful protesters. Even then, the systemic abuse of human rights will likely continue. Absent external pressure, Egypt is unlikely to change course without another destabilizing, violent revolution.