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Suppression and mass trials in Egypt fulfil critics’ worst predictions following last year’s military coup

The cult-like status of Field Marshal Sisi smacks of a return to strongman politics

It has been a busy week for Egyptian justice – or, rather, for the flagrant mockery of it. On Monday, a court sentenced no fewer than 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death for the killing of a policeman in the aftermath of the ousting of Mohamed Morsi last July. Yesterday, another 682 supporters of the now-banned Islamist group stood trial at the same court – including its leader, Mohamed Badie – this time for charges connected with an attack on a police station, also during the post-coup riots.

There are so many absurdities in Monday’s verdict, the only difficulty is where to begin. Not only is two days insufficient time to make a case against one defendant, let alone more than 500; only 120 of those charged were actually present for the trial, the rest being variously released, on bail, or on the run. What with the inherent preposterousness of several hundred people being held responsible for a single murder, the whole risible business looks like nothing so much as a “show trial” – a fact that does not change even if the sentences are commuted, as is expected.

Now, the stage is set for a repeat performance. Only 60 of the 600-plus defendants in the second trial were in court yesterday, defence lawyers boycotted the session over procedural violations, and there is little reason to believe that either the protestations of liberal Egyptians or the vocal concerns of the international community will have much bearing.

All of which only adds to the sense that Egypt is teetering on the brink of losing all that might have been gained from the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. This is no defence of Mr Morsi. Egypt’s first democratically elected president swiftly squandered the opportunity to make a difference, showing an alarming inclination to Islamicise the state and signally failing to get to grips with the structural problems causing ordinary Egyptians such hardship (and salting their annoyance at their political leaders). But even so poor a performance is nothing compared with what followed after the army toppled Mr Morsi, shot dead more than 1,000 people in the ensuing unrest, and cracked down on dissent with a lack of restraint sadly reminiscent of the Mubarak regime. Some 16,000 people have been arrested – not just swathes of Islamists but unaffiliated activists and journalists, too.

The outlook for Egypt thus darkens. Although elections are imminent, the as-yet-undeclared Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi – already Egypt’s unofficial ruler – is expected to sweep the board. Furthermore, his increasingly cult-like status smacks disturbingly of a return to the strongman politics to which many hoped that the Arab Spring had put paid.

And yet, it is still better that Field Marshal Sisi stands – and even wins – than that he does not. So powerful an éminence grise will do Egypt no favours, and there is a good chance that his being forced to take responsibility for Egypt’s myriad economic problems may take some of the shine off his security-first rhetoric.

These are slim comforts, however, next to the spectacle of what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights lambasted this week as “cursory mass trials”. It was perhaps never realistic to expect Egypt to go from autocracy to democracy in a single, smooth bound. But it is now more evident than ever how far there is to go.