By Amr Darrag
When the former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was sentenced to 20 years in April, in a trial internationally condemned as unconstitutional, unfair and deeply politicised, many saw it as a test of the international community’s resolve to stand up to the series of show trials currently under way in Egypt. For those who back democracy and human rights, the wall of silence from the international community was as predictable as it was tragic. At that time, I predicted that such silence would be interpreted by the Sisi regime as a green light to a death sentence for Morsi.
Where once politicians from Downing Street to the White House lauded the ideals and actions of the 2011 revolutionaries, now they were rendered mute as Egypt’s first democratically elected president was effectively sentenced to a life behind bars. Many also saw the sentence as a nail in the coffin for the ideals and dreams of the Arab Spring.
This week, the gradual purge of this first democratic government in Egypt took a darker turn. The Sisi regime, buoyed by the clear apathy of its international partners, upheld a death sentence handed down in May to Morsi and more than 100 people. The trial was nothing but a farce. Amnesty International called it a grossly unfair charade, which demonstrated a “complete disregard for human rights”.
A military coup – followed closely by the mass detention of the former government and the planned execution of Egypt’s first elected head of state – would usually precipitate a country becoming an international pariah. But remarkably, this has all come at a time of a thawing in the relationship between the west and Egypt. This includes the reopening of a multibillion-dollar American arms deal, and ever more cuddly diplomatic language.
The Morsi death sentence was met with some condemnation from Sisi’s newfound friends. Last month the EU’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, said the judgment “was not in line with Egypt’s obligations under international law“. Yesterday the US said the sentence was “deeply troubling“, a predictably nebulous response considering the Americans’ overt flirting with the Sisi regime this year.
The reluctance to stand up to this new wave of authoritarianism sweeping Egypt is based on a false premise. The west sees Sisi as a bulwark against extremism, a strongman in an otherwise rudderless region saturated by insurgent groups and quasi-failed states. Sisi believes mass arrests of Islamists and political opponents are a demonstration to the world that he is the man to bring stability to the region.
Yet taking this stance is playing with fire. The brutal crackdown on the former Muslim Brotherhood officials and supporters – as well as civil society and the media – will only serve to isolate and radicalise a restless core of Egypt’s voters and jettison them from the political mainstream. After the 2011 revolution, young Islamists finally believed political engagement in the new post-Mubarak Egypt was a reliable outlet for their concerns. Now, with nowhere to turn and with the grievances of jailed friends and relatives bearing down on them, the potential for a new, radical, political lexicon abounds. It will create dangerous ideologies based on resentment, injustice and hatred.
Sadly, this phenomenon is already been played out. In Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, a nascent branch of Isis has grown in ferocity since the 2013 coup, finding a fruitful recruiting ground in a corner of the country that has long been neglected. The regime’s reaction, to unilaterally punish communities by bulldozing and shelling entire neighbourhoods in Rafah, is in clear breach of international law. Intentionally or otherwise, the fear is that Sinai will now be a hotbed of extremism, fuelled by the brutality meted out by the regime.
This is also having a direct impact on the Mediterranean migrant crisis. After the Arab Spring, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees found a haven in the new Egypt. Wrongly, Egypt’s new rulers saw Syrians in cahoots with the Brotherhood. Within days of the coup, regime-sanctioned xenophobia meant these same people were violently expelled, later to emerge on the southern coasts of the Mediterranean in their thousands.
The hypocrisy at the heart of the west’s approach will soon filter through to the disenchanted and excluded on the streets. The EU campaigns for a moratorium of executions across the world, yet the half-hearted response to the Morsi judgment means grievances will soon be directed beyond Cairo, and toward Brussels or Washington. Those that hold on to the ideals of the 2011 revolution – freedom, democracy and fairness – must surely be nurtured, and not so readily abandoned. If not, what does that say about the deep malaise at the heart of Middle Eastern policy in western capitals?
Those fighting for a fairer, more secure Egypt are passionate about doing so for the generations that will follow them. The fear of a return to some form of uncontrollable Islamism is simple scaremongering. The ideals of the Arab Spring are not dead, and millions of Egyptians still want to pursue them passionately and peacefully. But if the international community continues to abandon these principles, they will only create another tinderbox of grievance in the Middle East. A brief glance at the region shows the world can ill afford that.