Egypt’s Arab Spring is moving into deepest, darkest winter. A series of mass trials suggest that the Egyptian judiciary is taking part in a reign of terror. On Monday, in the city of Minya, the capital of a province in central Egypt, three judges convicted 529 people of the murder of one police officer after two brief days of trial. All of them were sentenced to death. Only 16 defendants were acquitted. A similar trial of 683 people is planned, though it has been postponed to late April, and on Wednesday, Egypt’s chief prosecutor announced two more mass trials involving 919 accused.
The court could not possibly have heard enough evidence in a few hours to reach a verdict or pass sentence. Nor is it believable that one policeman was killed by hundreds of people, though there may have been an assault on a police station, and the Muslim Brotherhood has had a lot of support in Minya.
At one point, the presiding judge, Said Youssef Elgazar, reportedly exclaimed, “Don’t talk about the constitution, I don’t want to hear about that in my court.”
It is little comfort that most observers believe the sentences will be reduced on appeal. The trials are plainly intended to terrify. About 16,000 Islamists have been arrested since the military coup in July, removing from the presidency Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Brotherhood.
This approach goes further than the oppressive measures of former presidents, notably Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak. Many dissidents were imprisoned, and some were tortured and killed. But even Nasser is said to have told the judges of his day that he had set up special tribunals for his ruthless political prosecutions in order not to compromise the regular courts.
It may well be that the present-day Egyptian judiciary was so outraged by the high-handed and incompetent government of Mr. Morsi that the judges, without needing encouragement from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, are determined to prevent Islamists from ever regaining power.
Many Egyptian liberals seem enthusiastic about the crackdown by the interim military government, which is soon to be recast as the presidency of General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (his candidacy has at last been formally announced). They are mistaken. This doesn’t look anything like a transition to liberal democracy.