The violent murder of Egypt’s public prosecutor Hisham Barakat followed quickly by a bloody armed attack in Sinai against security checkpoints have both fueled angry calls for immediate revenge and expedited punishment for terror suspects and groups allegedly supporting them. These calls reverberated through Egyptian TV talk shows and permeated social media platforms.
Egypt is no exception. Similar developments took place in the USA after the 9/11 attacks and in the UK after the 2007 train bombs. The difference is these countries enjoyed a much better system of accountability and a free media. The current calls for blood in Egypt are far more frightening in a country that lacks effective accountability systems or strong independent media.
The Egyptian regime seems to be both feeding and responding positively to calls for revenge. The first salvo is a draconian counterterrorism bill after statements by senior politicians encouraging expedited executions and “not letting the law stand in front of justice”.
This is both tragic and alarming. After all, Barakat’s mission was to serve the law, rather than exact revenge. Courts are meant to uphold justice through a due process, careful deliberations, and fairness with suspects presumed innocent until proven guilty. Revenge belongs to a different order of things, where anger and loss are addressed through retribution against suspects whose guilt has been proven by the mob and the media rather than through evidence and investigations. Legal institutions and law enforcement agencies need time to follow procedures to ensure that their conclusions are as just as humanely possible. Revenge is impulsive and works on flimsy evidence. Justice promises an end to blood letting, revenge is insatiable.
By upending the very laws and norms that provide legitimacy to institutions such as the military and the judiciary, the current ruling regime in Egypt could be effectively playing into the hands of terrorist groups and undermining the very foundations of the modern state Egypt has been trying to build for two centuries.
Extremist violent groups which are wreaking havoc in the Sinai such as Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis, now also called the Sinai Province or Wilayat Sinai, reject democracy, rule of law and human rights as Kufr or apostasy. They propagate a grotesque version of alleged Islamic laws, or Sharia. This is the ideology they think best serves their megalomaniacal dreams of establishing a religious utopia or an Islamic state. For a complex web of reasons, socioeconomic and political, these groups have taken root in Sinai and the government's shortsighted policies could be helping them spread.
Egyptian politicians and commentators are calling for dismantling laws and procedures that they claim delay justice. They want to expedite court cases related to violent extremism. Paradoxically, this is a sign that violent extremist groups have partially succeeded or at least shown that the institutions of modern justice are dysfunctional and the elite "anti-Islamic” would bend them to their interests if they so wish.
More frightening is that Egyptian courts have indeed dealt “too” swiftly with many of these cases, arguably undermining the credibility of the system and its moral capital in the process, by issuing collective death sentences against hundreds of people in summary trials ignoring several guarantees for fairness and due process.
All seven final death sentences issued by civilians and military courts in cases related to political violence in the past 20 months were carried out after appeals were quickly rejected. The government has long established special tribunals within criminal courts to try political violence cases. Al-Shorouk newspaper reported that 16 out of the 26 such cases adjudicated by these courts since late 2013 have concluded relatively fast (in less than 8 months) and the rest are expected to sail through the First Instance tribunals before the end of the year.
For a judiciary system that suffers from a long backlog, with cases meandering through the courts for years, this is astronomical speed.
The new draft counterterrorism law that was leaked to several newspapers this week is a case in point. The law, apparently drafted in less than two days after the murder of Barakat, almost annihilates the foundations of due process and judicial fairness. Even the state’s Supreme Judiciary Council, rejected numerous articles of the draft law because they clash with basic tenets of a system of justice.
Seventeen leading human rights organisations in Egypt said the law constituted a flagrant assault on the constitution. The vague definition of what constitutes terrorist acts and other provisions in the law can help “legally” suppress a broad spectrum of rights and liberties, such as freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly and association, the organisations noted.
Confronting extremist violence with vague and ambiguous laws in a country that already has an arsenal of such “legal” tools is merely a political gimmick to convince an angry public that the government is taking action to counter a real threat from extremist violent groups. This law, like previous ones decreed by President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi in the continued absence of a parliament, gives the already widely empowered security agencies more license to detain and put on trial presumably innocent people while the actual culprits could remain at large.
Security agencies have been long acting with impunity despite hundreds of credible allegations of torture and killing over the past couple of years. In well known and documented cases, Egyptian security agencies arrested, tortured, and forced innocent people to confess crimes they did not commit or crimes that never even happened.
Egypt’s strategy for countering violent extremism could thus fail to address this major threat if not exacerbate it.
Strengthening the rule of law and truly respecting human rights enshrined in the very constitution of Egypt are not calls from a moral high ground but also arguably the rational and effective approach to counterterrorism. Repression does not only mechanically lead to more violent reaction and terrorism, but also damages societies, weakens their ability to collectively resist violence in a peaceful manner, and more often than not ensnares innocent people as “collateral damage” in its deadly counterterrorism dragnets whose extremely empowered and whimsical operators act with impunity.
An Egyptian government that no longer seems interested in formal politics and civil society, mainly relying on security agencies and their myopic vision, are threatening to turn a controllable storm into a devastating tsunami, whose destructive waves could affect many nations in the region and beyond.
Khaled Mansour is an independent Egyptian writer. He is a board member at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He worked for 25 years as a journalist and a communication expert with the UN in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.