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A death sentence for 529: How Egypt lost sight of rule of law

For supporters of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the struggle against Hosni Mubarak and his state will only be seen as successful when a state of law and order, for all citizens, becomes a reality. For the opponents of that same uprising, the revolution was a critical threat against the all-important prestige of the state.

Tuesday's ruling, when a judge in southern Egypt sentenced 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death, is only the latest sign of that conflict – and it is doubtful it will be the last. Proponents of the revolution continue to make the case for judicial reform – because as we saw on Tuesday, quite literally, such a lack of reform is potentially a death sentence.

While the revolution had an admirable and positive message of change, reform and revolution at its core, supporters lacked the critical mass to follow through after the military removed Hosni Mubarak from power. The Muslim Brotherhood entered into a pact with the military leadership – an alliance that neither expected to enter into when Mr. Mubarak was driven out of office on January 25, 2011. The revolutionary uprising had taken everyone by surprise, and these two powerful forces wanted to find ways to leverage it for their own purposes.

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When it came to the popular coup of June 30, 2013, however, the situation was quite different. There were well organized forces within and outside of the state that were well placed and prepared to leverage the situation, in advance of the actual removal of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi. Most of their agendas were not similar to the progressive one of the original protests in 2011 – but they were far more equipped to push their agendas forward.

Contrary to one popular notion, this is certainly not a unified, ready-made government that is currently in place. It is far more convoluted than that – the Egyptian state is more akin to a set of silos, with each silo pursuing particular interests.

The court case is an example in point. The forces of the state may be singularly supportive of an effort to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters – but that does not translate into unanimous backing for this particular case. After the death-sentence verdict was announced, different institutions, such as the foreign ministry and the presidency, as well as supporters of the still-being-formed regime, were at pains to either distance themselves from the verdict or to condemn it outright.

It is, of course, easy to see why they might do so. The judge sentenced hundreds of people to death in a case whose duration did not exceed a few hours in total, with most defendants not even present. It was unsurprising when Queen Noor of Jordan, a country deeply friendly to Egypt's new authorities, described the ruling as "horrifying." Numerous governments condemned it, and the United Nations called it a "breach of international human-rights law." Such a verdict is, at the very least, immensely embarrassing for Egypt on the international level. At most, it represents how decrepit the notion of justice and respect for due process has become in some quarters.

The ruling will almost definitely be overturned – that much is clear. But the very fact the initial verdict could even be issued is astonishing, and points to the fact that judicial reform is not simply a luxury, but a crucial necessity.

In most countries, the concept of 'judicial autonomy' is a solemn principle meant to uphold justice against power, and the interference of powerful actors upon the legal process. This ruling, however, accomplished none of this. Instead, it contravened numerous legal stipulations within Egypt's own legal system, in addition to international human rights conventions ratified by Egypt.

The question is, when the new regime is fully-formed and established, what steps will it take, if any, vis-à-vis these glaring flaws within the judicial system? Unfortunately, there are few signs from which to draw great optimism. Those that are truly interested in judicial reform are few, whether they who now stand in opposition to the military backed regime (such as the Brotherhood-led alliance), or those within the state. Rather, they view the judiciary as another actor (and subject) within a larger power play.

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Real reform would mean, at its core, the building of a new Egyptian republic, based on the inalienable rights of the citizen. With the 'war on terror' narrative in full force on the one hand, and the forces seeking yet more repression in ascendance on the other, it is difficult to see how that is going to be possible. That would be, after all, a revolution – and there are few indeed left in Egypt who seek a revolution that does not put themselves into power, whatever the cost to the Egypt in the long run.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, and the Royal United Services Institute in London. He is on Twitter at @hahellyer

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