Egypt certainly has a penchant for tragicomedy. A week after prosecutors in the terrorism case against Al Jazeera employees introduced a video of sheep farming — among other absurdities — as evidence, a judge in southern Egypt sentenced 683 alleged supporters of the Society of Muslim Brothers to death. Last month the same judge pronounced the same sentence upon 529 other members of the group. While few events in Egypt retain the capacity to shock, these perfunctory and ruthless verdicts prompted widespread condemnation.
The sentences reflect what scholar Abdullah al-Arian calls a campaign of “intense dehumanization” against the Brothers. For months the group has been tarred with the foreign entity brush, most recently by Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi, who told a Washington audience yesterday that the Brothers’ “assault on [Egyptians’] national identity” caused the July 2013 “revolution.” Yet while Egypt’s regime would like to paint a picture of a united nation struggling against terrorists, the conflict is comprised of far more than a crackdown on the Muslim Brothers. Instead, the spasm of judiciary retribution directed at the Brothers is part of a wider attempt by the regime to cauterize spreading dissent against Egypt’s revitalized security state.
Although, as Neil Ketchley documents in Middle East Report 269, the Brothers’ repeated street protests are probably the most visible expression of anti-regime mobilization, many non-Islamist sectors of Egyptian society are increasingly vocal in their opposition. Cairo’s clamorous liberal and left-leaning community has been increasingly active, despite some liberals’ earlier embrace of the coup. Popular figures have been arrested and some, such as Ahmad Mahir and Muhammad ‘Adil — founders of the April 6 movement — remain in jail. Indeed, while the court in Minya was sentencing the 683 Brother supporters to death, a Cairo administrative court was banning the April 6 movement on charges of espionage and damaging Egypt’s image abroad. Egypt’s universities have turned into battlefields, with authorities resorting to increasingly deadly tactics and ever heavier weapons to break up student protests. Outside Cairo, labor unrest continues unabated.
Repressing protest and dissent — whether from Islamists or non-Islamists, students or workers — has become imperative in clearing the way for ‘Abd al Fattah al-Sisi’s expected triumph in next month’s presidential elections. For the Egyptian regime, successful elections cementing al-Sisi’s rule will be a crucial validation of the events of the last ten months. And for the Obama administration, such an outcome could be held up as tangible evidence that Egypt’s military is “restoring democracy,” as Secretary of State John Kerry suggested in the aftermath of the July 3 coup.
Of course, yesterday’s mass death sentences, along with the Egyptian regime’s general extremism over the last nine months, should put that notion to rest. But whether that will even matter is an open question. Notwithstanding the occasional nods toward democracy promotion, the actual US-Egyptian relationship is grounded firmly in security cooperation. And in anticipation of the return to “normalcy” that both countries evidently expect al-Sisi’s election to provide, the security relationship is again moving to the fore. Over the weekend the Obama administration transferred ten Apache attack helicopters and other hardware to the Egyptian military. The armaments are sent ostensibly to aid the brutal counterterrorism campaign in the Sinai and, according to the Pentagon, “counter extremists who threaten US, Egyptian and Israeli security.” Coincidentally or not, days after the announcement, Egypt sent a delegation to Washington headed by Foreign Minister Fahmi, the highest-ranking Egyptian official to visit since the July 3 coup (and Husni Mubarak’s long-time ambassador to his patron on the Potomac). Muhammad al-Tuhami, the head of Egypt’s military intelligence service and al-Sisi’s mentor, tagged along as well.
The visit of al-Tuhami, a man near the apex of Egypt’s repressive apparatus and someone who reportedly speaks “as if the revolution of 2011 had never even happened,” seems fitting. Indeed, even as the Egyptian regime reaches new lows of brutality and nastiness to cope with growing dissent, it seems that the only thing being restored is business as usual between Egypt and the US.