(Read the Arabic version of this article here.)
If I had not been looking at the Al-Modon website last Thursday, and if my eye had not been drawn to an editorial by Sateh Noureddine about Egypt’s alarming execution of nine young men on 20 February, I would not have known that so many Egyptians had been put to death in a single day, or that the evidence provided to justify such a dire sentence was so tainted. None of the major US news networks covered this story, nor had I seen anything about the executions on Twitter or Facebook. Just eight years ago this month, news from and about Egypt was omnipresent across all media platforms in the US and globally in the wake of popular protests in Tahrir Square that brought about Hosni Mobarak’s resignation. How could journalistic attention to Egypt have diminished so dramatically in less than a decade?
I clicked on the website of Human Rights Watch, assuming that I would find a detailed report and analysis. But no: nothing there, either. How could a key US ally execute nine people and the international news media not know about it? Or, worse: Did the media know about it, but decide it was not a newsworthy story? Imagine if Japan (a country that also still has the death penalty on its law books) had executed nine people in one day. It would certainly rate headlines in the New York Times and on BBC World Service. The nine men hanged last week had names–Ahmed Wahdan, Abul Qassem Youssef, Ahmed Gamal Hegazy, Mahmoud al-Ahmady, Abu Bakr Abdel Megid, Abdel Rahman Soliman Kahwash, Ahmed al- Degwy, Ahmed Mahrous and Islam Mekkawy—but nowhere in the English language press were they mentioned. Nor were their families allowed to visit them before their executions, in violation of Egyptian law.
The crime that the executed men were accused of committing was certainly serious and horrific: the car bombing assassination of Egyptian Prosecutor General Hesham Barakat in the summer of 2015, which also killed bystanders. But the legal processes that led the men from arrest to interrogation to sentencing to execution were questionable. Credible reports that the men’s confessions had been extracted through torture circulated among human rights activists inside and outside of Egypt. Amnesty International decried the legal process that led to the men’s convictions. Furthermore, the men were tried before a special “terror” court, where the niceties of due process are not always observed.
The hanging of nine men in one day suggests that Egyptian President Sisi has appointed himself jury, judge, and executioner, and is now a more oppressive tyrant than former President Gamal Mobarak ever was. Sisi, former head of military intelligence, often wears his army uniform in public, which Mobarak rarely did. Like Mobarak, though, Sisi is intent on remaining Egyptian president for life and crushing any attempts at dissent. The difference between the Egypt of February 2011 and the Egypt of today is mind-boggling and depressing.
Capital punishment by any means is an abomination and a violation of International law. Humans are playing God when they arrogate to themselves the right to take others’ lives for any reason. Only a handful of states still practice capital punishment regularly—whether by hanging, decapitation, electrocution, or lethal injection. The UN Secretary General’s 2018 report on the death penalty reported that “some 170 States have either formally abolished or introduced a moratorium on the death penalty, or have not executed anyone for more than 10 years.” The UN has 193 members, so 23 states have carried out at least one execution over the past decade. At present, 55 countries still have the death penalty on their law books. Two of these are in the West: The United States and Belarus.
The country executing the most people in 2017 (the last year for which complete records are available) was China (over 1000 executed), followed by Iran (507), Saudi Arabia (146), Iraq (125), Pakistan (60), Egypt (35), Somalia (24), USA (23), Jordan (15), and Singapore (8). So, last week, just 50 days into the new year, Egypt had already executed one third the number of people it put to death in 2017. (Actually, Egypt had already executed 6 other people before February 20, bringing the total to 15.) This fact ought to be very newsworthy.
Five days after the execution of the nine men, and still not finding any reports or analyses on the Human Rights Watch website, I visited the US Department of State’s webpage on Egypt. No news there, either, other than information about an upcoming jobs fair, and the US Government’s travel advisory warning American citizens visiting or traveling through Egypt that they might encounter “instability.” One would hope that the popular and public response to his dictatorial regime would create instability for Sisi, but the U.S. State Department is clearly more worried about the possible fall of the regime, not its violations of Egyptians’ rights or the corruption of its own legal processes.
The great 20th century political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, in her study of Totalitarianism, stated that “all that is needed to achieve total domination is to kill the juridical sense in mankind.” Take away any hope that the rule of law matters or that justice will be done, and people become too afraid, hopeless, and paralyzed to demand their rights or struggle to effect needed changes in governance. Sisi is well on his way to achieving total domination of Egyptian society, but he is not operating in a vacuum. In the eight short years since millions of Egyptians—as well as billions of people throughout the world—celebrated the activism of Egypt’s youth and the fall of Mobarak, the failure of the Arab Spring movements in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen have paralyzed Arab societies still in dire need of dignity and democracy. Furthermore, since the election of Donald Trump, tyrants like Sisi are undoubtedly comforted to know that the US will look the other way as Arab journalists are killed and dismembered in consulate buildings and Yemen is destroyed by its Arab neighbors.
Impunity is the life-blood of tyrants, and in a world where International Humanitarian Law and respect for human rights is under assault by the world’s only remaining superpower, Sisi and other leaders like him can rest assured that they will feel no repercussions from executing their citizens, not to mention sentencing to death the rule of law.