Egypt’s Death Sentences Test U.S. Resolve

by Emile Nakhleh

The summary mass trial and conviction of 529 Egyptians to death this week is yet another example of Egypt’s descent into lawlessness and blatant miscarriage of justice. The rushed decision showed no respect for the most basic standards of due process under the military dictatorship.

The Egyptian court spent less than a minute on each of the 529 defendants before sentencing to them. Defense lawyers were barred from challenging state “evidence” and defendants were not allowed to speak. Yet, the Sisi government and the pliant Egyptian media did not question the sentences.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement in Secretary of State John Kerry’s name condemning the sentences. Kerry said he is “deeply troubled” and called on the Egyptian interim government to “remedy the situation.”

The decision, according to the statement, “simply defies logic” and fails to satisfy “even the most basic standards of justice.” Amnesty International deemed the death sentences “grotesque.” Most Western countries have expressed “deep concern” over the sham trial and convictions and the hope that the decision would be overturned on appeal.

In his heady rush to seek the presidency, however, Field Marshall turned civilian Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, however, is not paying much attention to America’s warnings or to international condemnations of the Minya judge who dispensed the ruling.

Sisi sees the Obama administration moving away from values of good governance and the rule of law in Egypt to a myopic doctrine of national interest, which includes coddling Arab dictators and tribal ruling potentates.

Since the Arab upheavals of 2011, President Obama has identified American values of tolerance, justice, fairness, and democracy as a guiding principle of post “Arab Spring” relations with Arab countries. These values, the U.S. President frequently said, “define who we are” as a people and as a nation.

Sisi, on the other hand, much like Putin’s power and land grab in Ukraine, feels empowered to defy the U.S. because he perceives it unwilling or unable to confront him or to shun him or cut military aid to Egypt. He counts on Washington’s inaction against him despite rising lawlessness by state institutions because of Egypt’s pivotal standing in the region.

By ignoring the Egyptian constitution and its traditional claim of judicial independence, the Egyptian judiciary seemed to kowtow to the military-run interim government.

The mass death sentences coupled with Sisi’s announcement of his candidacy for the presidency seem to bring the coup that toppled President Mohamed Morsi full circle. For Sisi, the January 25 Revolution is history, and the demands for democracy are now subsumed under the rubric of fighting “terrorism”, which he equates with the Muslim Brotherhood.

It’s symbolic that Sisi made the announcement on Egyptian television in military uniform even though he had just resigned as minister of defense and as member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). He told the Egyptian public he would continue the struggle “against terrorism” and would fight to “regain Egypt” and restore its “dignity and stature.”

Sisi must have taken a page from the American Tea Party book about “taking back America” and from Putin about taking back Crimea. As if someone has stolen America from Tea Party, or Ukraine from Russia, or Egypt from Sisi.

In fact, it was Sisi and the military junta that stole Egypt from the January 25 Revolution in a military coup. It was Sisi’s regime that has put over 15,000 Egyptians — Islamists and secularists — in jail through illegal arrests, sham trials, and without due process for challenging the coup.

Sisi envisions his presidency to rest on a three-legged stool of pliant media, submissive public, and adulation of him as a rising “selfie” star. In the name of “serving the nation,” Egyptians are being brain-washed not to question the personality cult of Sisi’s budding populist dictatorship.

In addition to frightening the public into submission, Sisi has also shuffled SCAF by sidelining potential challengers like General Ahmed Wasfi and promoting supporters like General Sidqi Sobhi. He sees these actions as an insurance policy against a possible coup that could topple him, much like he did against Morsi.

Although much has been written about Egypt in recent days, the death sentences and Sisi’s presidency have created two serious concerns, which Washington and other Western capitals must confront. First, these actions likely will result in a growing radicalization of some elements within the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups in Egypt.

Radicalization usually begets violence and terrorism.

It would be a nightmare scenario for any Egyptian government if the new radicals join forces with Salafi jihadists in Sinai. Such coordination, which could create an opening for al-Qa’ida in Egypt, would wreak havoc on the country and on Western interests and personnel there.

Second, continued instability, lawlessness, and repression in Egypt under a Sisi presidency would begin to attract Islamist jihadists from Syria to Egypt. Unlike their counterparts from Afghanistan, the new jihadists are honed by combat experience and trained in the use of all kinds of weapons. A jihadist base in Egypt would certainly spread to neighboring countries, including the Gulf tribal monarchies.

To stem this nightmarish tide, The United States and its Western allies must urge Gulf monarchies to start serious dialogue with their peoples toward inclusion and tolerance.

They also must convince Sisi that no stable political system would emerge in Egypt without including secularists and Islamists in the process. An adoring public, a pliant media, a sycophantic government, and an unfettered and corrupt military are a formula for disaster for Egypt and the region.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. These sentences in Egypt can not be compared to “Russia land grab in Crimea” since Crimea had been a part of Russia for over 200 years before Chief of Ukrainian Communist party in old USSR Khrushchev as a leader of Politburo of USSR in drunken show of megalomania gave it to Ukraine. It was deemed to be just a jest from Khrushchev, since under USSR constitution it was the act with no meaning.

    Putin’s action was swift and bloodless, since he had plenty supporters in Crimea, especially when a new Kiev’s government’s first act was an attack on Russians’ human rights by taking away the right to speak and communicate in their mother language. IfPutin had ordered to kill 500 Ukrainians in Crimea – then and only then Putin’s and Marshall’s acts would be comparable. It is far greater evil what’s happening in Egypt, since many people are going to die. Obama will not any kind of “sanctions” against the illegal rulers in Egypt. He would look to other side. The US government will not even take away the huge subsides from Egypt’s military since they know one thing – who blinks the first looses. And Obama knows, that Saudis are supporting the Egypt’s military in their mutual fight against Muslim Brotherhood. Obama also probably knows that Wahhabi branch of Islam supported by Saudis is the cradle of all terror in Islam, yet until Saudis attack Israel everythin is fine.

  2. As an American living in Egypt during these tumultuous times, I would like to stress that Egypt is fighting an unusual war against unusual terrorists who are both terrorists and dangerous traitors. Their basic ideology is to destroy Egypt as a state and to replace it by a khalifate where Egypt would be subservient to a foreign Khalifa. Has Western media shown this angle? Has Western media reported that Mahdy Akef, the previous MB leader in an interview (see it on YouTube) indicated that he would rather be governed by a Pakistani Muslim than by an Egyptian Christian? This is their strongly held belief: no national state, just a religion. Has Western media shown that Al-Qaeda, and other militant Islamic groups are all offshoots of the Muslim brotherhood, and they are now being called upon to help their brothers, waging ferocious fights and killing daily tens of Egyptian army soldiers? I have been in Egypt for more than 10 years, I have not seen the black flag of Al-Qaeda except during Morsy’s government. Has Western media shown this black flag appearing in Egypt? Has Western media shown Beltaguy, a prominent leader of MB (see it on YouTube) threatening in the Rabea encampment that if the government does not bring back Morsy to power they will have terrorists acts in Sinai and this is what happened? There are daily reports of killing of Egyptian soldiers and officers by Islamic terrorists that Morsy helped bring to Sinai. Has Western media shown pictures of Morsy during the 2013 October War celebration, having as his honored guests in the front rows, the Islamists who killed President Sadat? That infuriated the Egyptian army and the people. Has Western media reported that Morsy appointed as governor of Luxor governorate a member of an Islamic terrorist group which killed tourists in Luxor in the 90’s? The poor and uneducated inhabitants of Luxor had the common sense of refusing this appointment.
    Egypt is in a war. Let us appreciate Egypt’s efforts. We did not ask Obama for tolerance and peace when he was dealing with bin Laden.

  3. S.Masry – Im glad you identified yourself as “an American living in Egypt” and not as a “person” or anything else that resembles a “human”..As I am an American and a Human, you and your employers including Pres. Obama do not and have not spoken for me, so please don’t say “we” (and If your not talking to Americans here then who? The fictitious “international community” ?) The deranged state of the US government and of its servants around the world Is apparent. I’m not surprised it hasn’t condemned the repugnant, inhuman barbarity of the present Egyptian military Junta (I would not be surprised to learn if Obama was in full cooperation from start to finish). For the record the United States and its president are currently the worlds largest employer of “Islamic Terrorists”. That Saudi Arabian Manqué you named specifically was a former American employee in Afghanistan. This is a perfect example of the kind of “democracy” and “freedom” the US and its floundering stooges have on offer. I reject utterly reject it and your dishonest drivel along with it

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