After a lightning-fast trial in the city of al-Minya, the hangman’s noose threatens 529 Egyptians. The men, alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were convicted of murdering a single police officer in riots last August that erupted after Egyptian security forces violently broke up two sit-ins in Cairo of supporters of the ousted President Mohammed Morsi, killing over 800 people. The trial and sentencing, which took place in brief sessions, without defense lawyers able to present their case, might look like a simple reversion to the kind of repression that existed before Egypt’s 2011 uprising. But they actually mark a new phase in the decades-long struggle between the Egyptian state and the country’s oldest and largest Islamist group. In the end, both the government and the Muslim Brotherhood -- along with the Egyptian people for whom they each claim to speak -- will be the losers.
For over half a century, Egypt’s rulers have alternatively tried to squash and use the Muslim Brotherhood. Those who favored repression sometimes relied on legal means: outlawing the group, bringing mosque sermons under state control, including guidelines on who could preach and what they could say, and closely monitoring charitable activity. But more often, successive Egyptian regimes tended to use harsh measures largely outside of the law. The movement’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, was not arrested and tried; he was shot dead in 1949, likely by Egyptian police as a revenge for the Brotherhood’s own violent activities at that time. The height of repression came in the 1950s and 1960s, under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who built kangaroo courts to send some Brotherhood leaders to the gallows and thousands more to prison camps.
His successors, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, took a different approach, preferring to contain the Brotherhood rather than to try to eliminate it. For both rulers, the goal was to keep Islamists out in the open where they could be monitored and to siphon off support for shadowy radical groups that