<a href="http://www.mepc.org/articles-commentary/middle-east-focus">Middle East In Focus</a>
Last week’s court verdicts targeting a number of leading Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders has not gone unnoticed by Egypt’s news outlets, as well as by observers in its neighborhood. The stiff sentences, including the death penalty, underscored the seriousness with which the new military regime in Egypt takes the threat of a revival of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country. They also come amid growing deadly attacks in the Sinai Peninsula, which has led the Egyptian government to extend the curfew in numerous areas in Sinai. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi, who has been criticized for his autocratic style, has taken care to avoid being seen as trying to weaken the role of Islam in Egyptian society.
In a report for Al Ahram, Amany Maged sums up the outcome from the recent court proceedings, highlighting the unrelenting nature of judicial prosecutions against senior Muslim Brotherhood figures: “Another round of rulings in Egyptian courts sees Muslim Brotherhood members sentenced to life imprisonment and, in some cases, death. Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and 13 others received death sentences on Monday in what has come to be known as the Rabaa operation room case. The following day a Cairo court handed stiff prison sentences to former president Mohamed Morsi and his senior aides....The Muslim Brotherhood Legal Committee reacted quickly to the handing down of death and prison sentences, saying it will challenge them in higher courts....Judge Mohamed Nagi Shehata now has the distinction of sentencing Badie to death twice. Death sentences in Egypt have to go to the office of the Mufti for review, and though the Mufti’s advice is not binding, his office dismissed on of Shehata’s sentences.”
The Daily News Egypt writer, Khaled Okasha, belives that despite their severity, the sentences were justified given the nature of the crimes committed: “The crime that took place in front of and inside the Itihadiya Palace, a few months after Mohamed Morsi’s rule, raised a sort of panic and early concern for a wide number of Egyptians....The beginning of these details is that Morsi started his term by issuing a ‘constitutional declaration’ in order to allow him to take full control over the legislative sphere, as well as making his decisions immune to any legal supervision or authority....The outcome of this case was the first bullet against the Muslim Brotherhood…. For the people, the Brotherhood crossed all red lines and neglected the rights of its citizens simply to remain in power. Moreover, people believed that the Brotherhood could go further, using armed militias, even if they had to ignore all public institutions, for the sake of reaching the Itihadiya Palace to rule.”
That sentiment is not shared by some in Egypt’s neighborhood. For example, The Peninsula’s editorial staff considers the trials flawed, suggesting “There is a sense of déjà vu about the verdict. It was widely expected because the government of Abdel Fatah Al Sisi has been strenuously trying to weaken the Brotherhood and even efface it from the political stage by targeting its leaders and supporters…. Mursi didn’t come to power after a coup. He was elected through a democratic process and the fact that he couldn’t rise to the expectations of all segments of people can’t be taken as a ground to persecute him. The law must take its course, but the law must be seen as impartial and just....While the government of Al Sisi deserves support in its efforts to rebuild the country, the persecution of political opponents must be discouraged. The international community needs to be more vocal in its protests against these policies.”
In an op-ed for the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman, Ömer Taşpinar argues that Egypt’s military leaders would have been better off had they helped steer Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood towards parliamentary elections rather than stage a coup: “Since the July 2013 military coup, the dynamics in Egypt are characterized by a return of the ancient regime with a vengeance....In 2013, Egypt needed early elections, not a military coup. Instead of a staging a coup, the Egyptian army should have waited for the next elections. Forcing the Muslim Brotherhood government to call early elections would have been a much better alternative because the people would have ousted the Muslim Brotherhood in a democratic way....Sadly, Egypt has now opted for the worst journey. A journey that can only lead to more radicalization and polarization between Islamists and secularists.”
One person whom many had expected to speak out, but who until now has refused to do so, is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan’s silence, according to Arif Tekdal, comes as a surprise, given the Turkish president’s previous statements in support of Mr. Morsi: “Not much has been heard from President Erdogan regarding the conviction despite him announcing earlier in April that any prospect of mending ties with Egypt was dependent on the release of Morsi....Ankara's support for the Muslim Brotherhood has been a source of tension in the region, negatively affecting Turkey's relations not only with Egypt but also Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Erdogan's perceived abandonment of Morsi comes after a high-level visit to Saudi Arabia, a staunch supporter of Sisi....Erdogan's meeting with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh on March 2, only a day after Sisi's visit, has given rise to speculation that Saudi Arabia may be playing a mediating role between Turkey and Egypt with the aim of repairing relations between the two countries.”
Meanwhile, in part driven by the clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the violence in the Sinai Peninsula continues unabated. According to a report by Asharq Alawsat’s Mohamed Hassan Shaban “Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi on Saturday declared a state of emergency in North Sinai for a period of three months, beginning on Sunday, following a recent spate of attacks targeting security and army personnel in the province. A state of emergency has been enforced in parts of the region since last October, but a statement issued by the Egyptian president said the current decision did not represent an extension of this, but rather a new decision that encompassed different areas in the restive province....The decision coincides with Sinai Independence Day in Egypt, on Saturday, which marks the withdrawal of the last group of Israeli soldiers from the area in accordance with the Camp David Accords signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979, following the Yom Kippur (October) War in 1973.”
Beyond the military threats, Sisi’s administration is having to fend off attacks from prominent Egyptians who have, as this Egypt Independent article points out, accused the president and his government of pursuing policies inimical to national unity: “Novelist Alaa al-Aswany has said he cannot take President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's side, accusing him of destroying the June 30 alliance. In a video circulated among Facebook users on Saturday, Aswany addressed Sisi saying, ‘You’re in a real war against terrorism. There is terrorism that targets military and police personnel. But how can you call for national unity while you are destroying the June 30 alliance? How do I demand from people whose sons are imprisoned under an unconstitutional law to unite with a regime that imprisoned their sons? You’re calling for national unity, while you are following policies that break that unity. No national unity without justice,’ Aswany said.”
It is clear the Mr. Sisi is feeling the pressure and has tried in recent days to strike a delicate balance. Khaled Dawoud, writing for the Egyptian daily Al Ahram, suggests that following a call made by an Egyptian activist to remove the veil and other related incidents, the Egyptian president has come out in defense of his call for ‘renewed thinking’ on Islam: “Since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi as president on 3 July, 2013, Islamists have argued that what they term the military coup was directed not at the Muslim Brotherhood but any attempt to establish an Islamic state....Secular intellectuals in Egypt, they say, are abusing Al-Sisi’s call to renew Islamic thinking and reject extremist ideas that tolerate terrorism. Instead they are using it to attack the key tenants of Islam, which they believe includes the veil....The arguments reached such a pitch that Al-Sisi himself apparently felt a need to intervene. In a speech delivered at the Military Academy on 17 April, the president said that when he called for a renewal of Islamic thinking he had intended the task to be undertaken by ‘enlightened, respected scholars’.”
Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.