A famous line from the award-winning 1996 film The Usual Suspects says that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
The Muslim Brotherhood group has had a similar motto throughout its 90-year existence as a terrorist organisation, during which it has had some success in masking its true motives from both the public, some of which trusted it, and the international media, which in some cases has treated members of the group as victims.
Then came the trial of the century for the Muslim Brotherhood, also known as the Rabaa trial in a reference to the armed encampment of Brotherhood supporters in Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square and the events following its dispersal in August 2013.
In a judicial process that has lasted over five years and a trial that had lasted 32 months, the Rabaa trial has long been characterised by heightened emotions and political intrigue. It has always been carried out in accordance with Egyptian law, despite what has been claimed by some in the international media.
Death sentences were handed down earlier this month to 75 Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist convicts in the Rabaa trial, and life sentences were handed down to others, including Brotherhood supreme guide Mohamed Badie.
These may appear to be aberrations of justice to those unfamiliar with the charges against the accused. However, the five years the judicial process has taken, and the sentences now handed down, will appear fully justified to those aware of the extent of the damage caused and the thousands of lives that have been lost as a result of this notorious terrorist group’s activities.
The intention here is not necessarily to defend the death sentences, with capital punishment being questionable to many despite its application in 54 countries worldwide, including in the world’s two largest democracies, India and the United States.
Instead, the aim is simply to make it clear that in prosecuting those responsible for the Rabaa outrages the Egyptian state did not choose the path of extra-judicial punishment, or extra-judicial killings, which was chosen by many other countries in the aftermath of cataclysmic events, including the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
In the latter case, the US government chose to assassinate individuals accused of terrorism, including people having American citizenship, who were thought to be part of the 9/11 plot.
Extrajudicial killings were also utilised by the British army and the Northern Ireland Royal Ulster Constabulary, the local police force, to target Northern Irish rebels and liquidate them without trial during the conflict in the province in the 1970s and 1980s known as “the troubles”.
Unlike in these cases, the Egyptian authorities did not opt to liquidate Muslim Brotherhood leaders using extra-judicial means, even as they were aware that many countries, including some western countries, had used such methods. They did not institute quick trials and impose sentences either.
The Egyptian state did not use offshore prisons, as the US has done at its facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, to bypass national laws or due processes.
Instead, the authorities have opted for the regular trials of accused Muslim Brotherhood members, and these have been ongoing since 2013 amidst the most ferocious wave of terrorist attacks in the country’s history.
These important points have been neglected by the international media during the coverage of the Rabaa trial.
The US news network CNN and other news outlets have covered the trial in a manner that may have given the impression that it was set up recently and that those accused were “freedom-fighters” of some description and not members of one of the most notorious jihadist and terrorist groups in history.
During the judicial procedures, there have been killings targeting Egyptian citizens and officials. Former president Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, now on trial on charges of spying for Qatar, was seen making a sign indicating killing before former attorney-general Hesham Barakat was assassinated by a car bomb in June 2015.
The latter’s death was one of many, with thousands of police and army officers being killed as they carried out their duties fighting a war on terrorism in North Sinai or simply ensuring domestic security such as those killed during the bombing of the Mansoura police headquarters in the Delta in December 2013.
This is not counting the hundreds of civilians who have been killed on the direct orders of the Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide or his assistants.
Some of the latter have now received the death sentence in the Rabaa trial, including Brotherhood leader Mohamed Al-Beltagi who once said during a TV interview that terrorism in Sinai would stop the moment that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi reversed what Al-Beltagi called the “military coup” that had toppled Morsi.
This showed that Al-Beltagi and the Brotherhood group is responsible for orchestrating the terrorist attacks taking place in North Sinai.
The number of those sentenced to death or life in prison in the Rabaa trial has led some to question the verdicts, accusing them of being arbitrary. Nothing could be further from the truth.
These members of terrorist groups were not law-abiding citizens picked up from their homes. They were active parts of a major terrorist offensive launched against the Egyptian state in July 2013.
Documents seized from Brotherhood group leaders, together with their own statements, show that they considered themselves to be in a state of war against the Egyptian state, and this strips away the victimisation claims still being propagated in parts of the international media by exiled members of the group and its off-shoots in western countries.
The parts of the international media that have been defending Muslim Brotherhood members are in this case simply playing the role of “useful idiots” to the benefit of this proven terrorist group.
The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood group originates in Egypt and is believed to have over 500,000 active members explains the number of the arrests and sentences.
The latter have only targeted those among the Brotherhood’s leaders that orchestrated the terrorist attacks that took place after the 30 June Revolution in 2013.
These leaders amount to a few dozen in number. Those who have been convicted of terrorism offences have been sentenced, while others have been found innocent of the charges against them by due processes of law. Still others are on the run in Turkey or Qatar.
If the leaderships of Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) group were to be captured by the United States they would amount to similar numbers, if not more, and if they were put on trial they would likely receive similar sentences.
There would likely be a higher number of convictions than in a regular court case because of the size of these terrorist groups. That said, the Rabaa trial is undoubtedly one of the largest, if not the largest, ever witnessed in an Egyptian court.
While not perfect, Egypt’s courts operate independently, and before the death sentences were handed down in the Rabaa trial, the Court of Cassation removed some of those who had received such sentences, including Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide Mohamed Badie, from a blacklist of suspected terrorists as it believed that proper procedures had not been followed.
This may sound odd, but it shows that each court in Egypt operates independently and that each may only rule on the basis of the provided evidence.
None of this has been mentioned in the international news outlets in their coverage of the trial, with these highlighting the death sentences but neglecting the deaths of the thousands of Egyptians who were the victims of those sentenced.
The Rabaa trial is not simply the trial of members of a terrorist group that has wreaked havoc on this country while its spin-offs have been destroying entire nations in the Middle East, including Syria and Libya.
It is also the trial of the international community, urging it to stand firm in the fight against terrorism in all its forms and not to make the mistake of taking Brotherhood propaganda at face value.
The world’s governments have sworn to protect their citizens from dangers to their lives. Yet, too often they still look the other way when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood, which represents a ticking bomb set to explode at any time once the order is given.
* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Misconceptions of the Rabaa trial