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 endorsed the use of violence, which the Brotherhood had eschewed since the 1960s. The Sadat and the Mubarak regimes allowed the Brotherhood to open a headquarters and permitted some of its leaders to pursue social, economic, and charitable activities. They even let leaders run for parliament as independents or within secular political parties, as long as they agreed to lose most races. But, at the same time, both regimes harassed Brotherhood leaders, investigated their business dealings, rounded up their followers, and broke up their meetings if they got too large.

And, just like their predecessor, they often operated outside of normal legal channels and institutions. Sadat, who had been one of the judges in Nasser’s kangaroo courts, developed a new set of special courts for security and protecting society from “shameful conduct,” as the regime defined it. Under Mubarak, the Nasser-era flouting of the law continued to give way to a more regularized set of procedures and structures: state security courts, military courts, and detentions that observed the letter but not the spirit of the law. For example, if relatives could find out where a detained family member was being held, they could resort to the courts for a release order. If they won one, the accused was released -- and then promptly re-arrested by another security agency.

The Egyptian government’s most recent moves against the Brotherhood may thus seem like a replay of historical patterns, but in reverse. The Brotherhood briefly held legal status after the 2011 uprising -- it was even allowed to form a political party. Then a court robbed it of that status once again; the cabinet declared it a terrorist organization last December, although the government has yet to prove its connection to violent attacks. Mere membership in the Brotherhood is illegal, and the security forces get to decide who, exactly, belongs to the group. In the recent al-Minya verdict, there were reports that some of those sentenced to hang were already deceased when the crime was committed.

Egypt is now experiencing violence akin to that of its darkest periods. The repression harks back to the Nasser era: from 1952 to 1955, as many as 20,000 people (liberals and leftists as well as Muslim Brothers) were jailed. Now, some 19,000 have been imprisoned since July for either participating in protests or on suspicion of being members of the Brotherhood. More than 2,500 civilians have been killed and another 17,000 wounded in the protests since Morsi was ousted, numbers unprecedented even in Nasser’s time. When it comes to violence by Islamists, the scale resembles the 1990s under Mubarak, when an insurgency killed an estimated 1,500 people over seven years, including shootings of tourists, small bombings, and assassinations of police and government officials. Violence against police and military officers has increased tenfold since the coup, with some 300 officers and several dozen civilians killed in attacks claimed by jihadi organizations, such as the Sinai-based insurgent group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, in car or suicide bombings, drive-by shootings, or as a result of small improvised explosive devices. The government publicly blames the Brotherhood for every attack but has yet to present evidence of operational links between the group, which vociferously denies involvement, and those that actually claim responsibility for the attacks.

But compared to previous eras, there is a fundamental difference in the state’s way of dealing with the Brotherhood. Under Nasser -- as well as Sadat and Mubarak -- repression was the job of security agencies and special courts. The judiciary sometimes acted as a brake on the government’s most authoritarian impulses. Now, all the instruments of the Egyptian state seem fully on board. Whereas Nasser had to go to the trouble of setting up kangaroo courts, today there is no need. The regular judiciary has led most of the recent crackdown on the Brotherhood, from the Minya convictions to other trials of Brotherhood leaders. Meanwhile, the state media, the religious establishment, civil service, and educational institutions have all joined in the effort. Some political parties and most of the private media have even signed on too, apparently of their own free will.

As a result, the institutions of the Egyptian state that used to command respect because they were seen as being above the political fray -- the judiciary as well as the army -- now seem to be very willing participants in the repression. This shift not only damages the international reputations of the judiciary and the military but also colors how they appear domestically. Any future rebellion, therefore, might turn against all parts of the state, rather than just the president and those figures viewed as his henchmen, as was the case in the 2011 uprising against Mubarak. 

For now, these institutions are grappling with the question of what to do about not only terrorist attacks but the surprisingly persistent pro-Brotherhood and anti-military demonstrations that have rocked the country since the military removed Morsi from office. Since the brutal dispersal of the Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo last August, the authorities have tried a series of other repressive steps, including the November issuance of a draconian anti-protest law, the December terrorist designation of the group, and the recent death sentences. The string of measures seems borne more of short-term panic and anger at the Brotherhood than of any long-term strategy. But by picking the path they have, Egypt’s generals and judges might have only added to their list of problems.

For one, there is the question of what to do with the estimated 19,000 detainees. Even if authorities eventually release many of them (there is no sign of that yet), they will most likely try to find legal grounds for keeping thousands more in prison for years. Individual trials would be more than Egypt’s judicial system could bear, and releasing detainees, many of whom have been tortured, risks providing many more recruits for jihadi groups. The mass trials against Brotherhood members -- there are several ongoing -- include hundreds who are still at large and dozens demonstrably not involved in the specific incidents in question. Although the verdicts might be overturned on appeal or the sentences lessened, they nevertheless pave the way for an ongoing cycle of fury and retribution.

The path away from such a horror show is political reconciliation, in which the authorities agree to release detainees, drop the terrorism designation, and reintegrate the Brotherhood into political life in exchange for a pledge from the group of nonviolence and its acceptance that Morsi will not be restored as president. But for now, many Egyptians consider the mere mention of the word “reconciliation” to be treason. It will eventually have to happen if Egypt is to reach some sort of political consensus along the lines of Tunisia’s, which is its best hope for stability. There are simply too many Islamists and non-Islamists (nationalists, liberals, leftists) for any one side to dominate. The other option is continued violence and instability. Nasser and Sadat lurched between domestic and foreign policy crises during their presidencies; Sadat was assassinated by an Islamist sympathizer in the military. Mubarak was only able to calm the country once Islamists had alienated Egyptians by causing so many civilian casualties. Today, despite the political divide, there is one point on which most Egyptians will agree: ongoing repression is less likely to work in an Egypt with dire economic problems and a population that has become accustomed to pushing presidents out of office. 

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  • NATHAN J. BROWN is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and Nonresident Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. MICHELE DUNNE is Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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