TIME Egypt

Egyptians Debate Gender Violence After Video Shows Woman Being Raped in Crowd

An amateur video depicting a mass sexual assault in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during a rally celebrating the inauguration of Egypt’s new president Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi has triggered a rare national discussion of endemic gender-based violence.

The shaky video, posted to YouTube on Sunday, shows a woman in the square, stripped naked, her body visibly injured, shoved and pulled by a crowd of men, while a uniformed police officer also struggles with the crowd. The incident prompted debates on television and radio and spilled onto the front pages of nearly all Egypt’s major daily newspapers. “Execute them,” roared a red-letter headline in Tuesday’s edition of the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper, in reference to the perpetrators. Seven men were arrested in connection with the attack. The woman, identified by police as a 19-year-old student, was hospitalized after the attack. At least three other women were assaulted in the crowd, according to local monitors.

The immediate reaction to the video response by political elites and members of the media provoked further public outrage. Some government supporters blamed the assault on the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice website, meanwhile, attributed the attack to the “moral decadence” of Sisi’s supporters in Tahrir Square. Maha Bahnassy, a TV presenter for the pro-government Tahrir channel, provoked a furor for giggling on air during another journalist’s report on sexual assaults on Sunday. “Well, they are happy,” Bahnassy said during the broadcast. “The people are having fun.”

The public fury surrounding the incident drew unprecedented attention to the longstanding problems of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment, all of which have come to the fore since Egypt’s 2011 uprising that ended the three-decade presidency of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Women stood alongside men on the front lines of the uprising, but the turmoil that followed placed women’s bodies in harm’s way. Sexual assaults by crowds of men became a consistent, if horrifying, component of the giant protests in Tahrir Square. Security forces also participated in well-documented cases of physical attacks and sexual assaults on women. In one iconic video now emblematic of state violence against women, riot police stomped on the chest of a woman, bare except for a blue bra.

The attack also posed a conundrum for Egypt’s newly-minted president, Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi, the former armed forces chief who removed elected President Mohamed Morsi from power last year. One of Sisi’s first appearances in the public eye came in 2011 when he defended one instance of sexual assault, the use of so-called “virginity tests” by soldiers on women detainees. During his presidential campaign, Sisi vowed to clamp down on sexual assaults, and before his inauguration interim president Adly Mansour issued a decree criminalizing physical and verbal sexual harassment and imposing six-month-to-five-year prison terms on those convicted of such acts.

In one of his first acts since he assumed the presidency, Sisi’s office released a statement saying he ordered Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim to “vigorously enforce the law and take all necessary measures to combat sexual harassment, an unacceptable form of conduct, alien to the best principles of Egyptian culture.” The statement also said “every family bears a responsibility to disseminate and instill within its children core moral principles and correct behavior.”

Veterans of the long struggle for women’s rights in Egypt responded skeptically. “It’s not a matter of law,” said Nawal El Saadawi, a physician and a preeminent Egyptian feminist writer and activist. “We have many laws against sexual assault and attacking women and all that, but it’s never put in force, even the new law that came a few days ago. We cannot eradicate such a very deep assault against women just by law.”

Saadawi said political mobilization was the only way to compel the government to act decisively against sexual assault, blaming the state for clamping down on independent women’s political organizations. “The government will never listen to us unless we have power,” she said. “The government of Sisi and the government of Mubarak and Sadat, they listened to Salafis, they listened to Islamic groups because they were organized and they were powerful. That’s why I don’t ask anything from Sisi or Sadat or anybody.”

Nihal Saad Zaghloul, an activist with an anti-sexual harassment and assault group called Imprint, attributed the public outpouring around the recent case to the fact that police intervened and that the video surfaced. “The problem is, and it’s very sad, that not many people believed this for the past three years that [mass sexual assaults have] been happening. People only believed it when they saw in in action.”

“It made sort of a big bang, and we’ve been trying to talk about it for the past three years. It happened on the 30th of June but people decided to be quiet because they didn’t want to ruin the image of the revolution,” Zaghloul said, referring to the day of mass protests against Morsi in 2013 that triggered his removal by the military.

“People have always claimed that the rapes in Tahrir were stories made up by protesters or [carried out by] a fifth column trying to spoil the image of Egypt, but now there is an actual video with a close-up of the victim,” said Amina Tarraf, an activist and researcher on women’s affairs. “This video changed something in people’s perceptions of rape and assault and how women are vulnerable in the public sphere,” she said. “It’s woken up the people.”

TIME Egypt

Bassem Youssef Abruptly Cancels Egyptian Satire Show Before Sisi Declared President

Bassem Youssef, the Arab world’s most important political humorist following Egypt’s 2011 uprising, abruptly announced Monday the end of his television show as the country prepared to declare former field marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi as president.

The cancellation of Youssef’s wildly popular show El Bernameg (“The Program”) underscored Egypt’s constriction of freedom of expression since the military removed elected President Mohamed Morsi last year. Since Morsi’s ouster, authorities put an end to the freewheeling media atmosphere that arose in the wake of the 2011 uprising. The interim government shuttered Islamist media, jailed Egyptian and foreign journalists and banned unauthorized protests. The crackdown on political opponents initially targeted thousands of Morsi’s primarily Islamist supporters, but it’s now affected many who, like Youssef, were staunch critics of Morsi.

In a news conference Monday at the downtown Cairo theater where his show used to be recorded, Youssef did not explain exactly why the show would not return to the airwaves, but suggested government pressure was to blame. “The Program doesn’t have a space,” he said. “It’s not allowed.”

He also insinuated that he refused to continue to air the show while watering down its caustic style of political satire. Youssef modeled his show on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, savaging politicians and media figures of all stripes. He said the network, Saudi-owned MBC Masr, had tried to keep the show on air. “I thank MBC Masr for hosting us and I can’t blame it for the pressures it had been put under. It was more than it could handle.”

The backstory to The Program’s cancellation remains murky, but experts say a system of de facto media constraints has remerged in Egypt since 2013, in which self-censorship and back-room pressure on media outlets are the norm. Mainstream writers, editors, anchors and network executives are believed to constantly self-police a set of constantly-shifting “red lines” that delineate what can and cannot be said.

“The pressure is never official,” said Rasha Abdulla, a professor of journalism and mass communication at The American University in Cairo. “All you need is a phone call or a word in passing.”

“We don’t know the exact mechanism, but it’s happening, and the results are very clear,” Abdulla said. “You have a very monotone media, a single-voiced media, with absolutely no opposition voices in the media. If they are, they are extremely mild.”

Since The Program first aired in 2011, Youssef has sparred with a series of governments and mocked a range of opponents. Youssef finally crossed one too many lines in April 2013, when prosecutors under the government of Muslim Brotherhood leader Morsi issued an arrest warrant for him. A satirist to the core, Youssef appeared at Egypt’s High Court wearing an enormous version of a cylindrical black graduation hat Morsi had worn in Pakistan. He was released the same day on bail.

Youssef cheered the protests that prompted the military to remove Morsi, but when he returned to the airwaves months later, he appeared chastened by the shrunken space for government criticism. He did not directly mock Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the military leader who pushed the Muslim Brotherhood from power and who last week was elected Egypt’s president in a pro forma election. Instead, in one episode, Youssef took aim at the cult of personality around Sisi, joking, for example, about the phenomenon of cakes and sweets stamped with Sisi’s face.

However, according to a former member of Youssef’s staff, the show’s approach to Sisi was set to change as Sisi assumed the presidency. Staffers were informed of the cancellation last Monay, just as the staff were preparing an episode, never recorded, that confronted Sisi explicitly. The episode was never recorded.

“The red lines conversely inspire creativity,” said Jonathan Guyer, a senior editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and a writer who studies Egyptian political satire. “This happened under Mubarak. Because nobody was publishing drawings of Mubarak, everyone found a workaround to draw Mubarak. I wouldn’t be surprised if the people on his team find a way to work around or make their own series.”

TIME Egypt

Here’s Why Egypt Extended Presidential Elections to a Third Day

Low turnout could prove a stumbling block to the ambitions of former military commander Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who remains all but certain to win despite the delay

Egyptian authorities announced a one-day extension of voting in the country’s presidential election on Tuesday in an attempt to boost low turnout in an election expected to result in a landslide for former military chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.

Sisi, who overthrew elected President Mohamed Morsi from power last year, had called for a high turnout in hopes of securing a political mandate. The reports of low participation threatened to undercut the credibility of Sisi’s otherwise inexorable march to the presidency. His sole challenger, left-winger Hamdeen Sabahi, came third in the 2012 election and was not expected to pose a threat to Sisi’s campaign.

But political fatigue, perceptions that the outcome was pre-determined, widespread boycotts, and scorching hot weather may yet pose a threat to Sisi’s standing; all drove down turnout in the election, which began on Monday and had been scheduled to end at 10 P.M. on Tuesday.

The last-minute extension, announced by the Presidential Election Commission, also followed several other measures intended to increase turnout. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb declared Tuesday a national holiday. One member of the Election Commission claimed judges would enforce an obscure rule that imposes a 500 Egyptian pound ($70) fine for not voting without a valid excuse.

“The reports I’m seeing in terms of the turnout suggest something is not going as planned as far as the interim authorities are concerned. They certainly seem to be taken aback, and what we’re seeing is them scrambling to try and deal with that,” said Aziz El-Kaissouni, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“A large component of that is political apathy, and a very good question is, why bother go out and vote when you know the result beforehand,” he said. “‘Why should I take several hours out of my work day, or my holiday as it may be, and stand in line in the sweltering heat when we know exactly what the outcome is?’”

In Cairo on Tuesday, some polling stations bustled with voters. Others were deserted. A half hour after the polls opened in a school in Giza, a single man stood in the voting booth. The judge in charge of the room gestured with a pen toward the ballot box. Only about 600 of the district’s approximately 4,000 registered voters had participated so far. “It’s still early,” he said.

In the neighborhood of Imbaba, historically a redoubt of Islamism and political opposition, a steady trickle of voters came and went from two polling places. At one school, the judge descended to the courtyard to help a 100-year-old woman who could not climb the stairs to the voting booths. “Do you want Sisi or Sabahi?” he asked. The woman pointed to Sisi.

The overwhelming majority of voters interviewed expressed support for Sisi. Alia Mohamed, 23, an elementary school teacher said she backed the former army chief. “Honestly, he’s the best person to hold the country.” Some people in her neighborhood opposed Sisi, she said, “but they’re sitting at home.”

On Tuesday evening, as the heat began to ease, turnout picked up at a large school in another section of Giza, a hub for four different electoral districts. A row of armored personnel carriers lined the street outside. A small crowd waving Egyptian flags, and a few Sisi posters, rallied outside the entrance. Speakers pumped patriotic music. Armed soldiers and police, some wearing black face-masks, guarded the demonstration.

A small but vocal minority of voters expressed support for Sabahi. In upscale Mohandessin, a woman who declined to give her name due to an institutional affiliation, said she voted for Sisi’s rival “just to make a point that it was not a landslide.” She said she was skeptical of Sisi. “That’s not what people died for three years ago,” she said, referring to the 2011 uprising that ended the 30-year autocratic rule of president Hosni Mubarak.

Among Sisi’s supporters, jitters about low turnout spilled over on Monday night’s talk shows, with several hosts angrily condemning voters for lackluster participation. “I’m willing to cut my veins for the country right now on air for people to go down and vote,” said an anchor on the show Al Qahera Al Youm.

“Egypt is entering a phase of authoritarian restoration that’s not simply Mubarak 2.0. Mubarak inherited power from Sadat in a relatively smooth transition, with no serious rivals or an upsurge from below,” said Mona El-Ghobashy, a political scientist at Barnard and expert on Egyptian politics. “Sisi takes the reins in a far more challenging political environment.”

“Unlike Mubarak, he’s keen to organize periodic mass spectacles endorsing his person and his policies, to appropriate and channel the authentic mass mobilization made possible by the uprising,” she said. “But as the embarrassingly low turnout for the elections shows, there are limits to how much Sisi can script mass public support. Even his core constituency will tire of being trotted out every few months to perform its adoration, absent an improvement in daily life conditions.”

TIME Egypt

Egypt Votes in Anticipation of al-Sisi Victory

Egypt Presidential Election 2014
A supporter of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi displays a photo of his candidate outside a polling station after voting in the Egyptian city of Port Said on May 26, 2014. Cliff Cheney—Zuma Press

In Port Said, where riots in 2012 exposed the weakness of then-president Mohamed Morsi, many Egyptians voting in this week's election were eager for the stern leadership offered by former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

Few voters entered or exited the Port Said Girls Junior High School. To the left of the entrance sat an army officer wearing tan fatigues and sunglasses. To the right stood a DJ, his equipment stamped with the words “LOVE STORY.” His speakers blared pop and classical patriotic songs. “Orders,” the officer said when asked why the music was playing. “The governor’s.”

A minute later, the DJ played ‘Bushret Kheir’ (A Good Omen), a catchy jingle urging Egyptians to participate in the presidential election. “You can take photos of citizens. Don’t take photos of the music,” the officer also said.

Released less than two weeks ago, ‘Bushret Kheir’ has swept Egypt in recent days, racking up more than nine million hits on YouTube. The song is written by Emirati composer Amr Mostafa, who is known for backing Egypt’s overthrown president Hosni Mubarak and calling the 2011 uprising against him a foreign conspiracy backed by the Coca-Cola and Pepsi corporations. The song could be heard throughout Port Said on Monday, the first of two days of voting in Egypt’s presidential election. The tune blasted from passing cars, from speakers mounted on trucks, and from sound systems placed outside at least two other polling stations.

Everywhere the face of one man stared down on the city. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former military chief who last July toppled elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. Throughout the city, Sisi loomed down from huge banners hanging from lampposts, many of the signs printed by private companies. His likeness was plastered to the hoods of cars and shop windows.

Sisi’s victory is widely regarded as inevitable. Following Morsi’s ouster and arrest, Sisi became the presumed strongman of an interim government that launched an immense crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other political opponents, banning unsanctioned protests, shuttering key Islamist media, killing more than a thousand and jailing more than 20,000 others. With most Islamists removed from the formal political process, Sisi’s promise of stability and economic recovery has resonated with voters exhausted after more than three years of unrest. Sisi also enjoys the overwhelming support of Egypt’s media and rockstar-like popularity among large sections of the public demanding law and order.

“To tell you the truth, Sisi doesn’t even need to campaign. He’s very popular,” said Ahmed Ayad, 45, a member of the Sisi Youth Committee in Cairo. Sisi’s de facto campaign has been organized by small parties and independent groups. The Youth Committee is one such group, headquartered in a yellow two-story villa guarded by armed private security men in the suburban Cairo district of Heliopolis. Sisi’s popularity, said Ayad, “reflects a hope for a better future that is organized and assertive.”

Nowhere is the yearning for stability more palpable than in Port Said, a city of 600,000 at the mouth of the Suez Canal. Since the 2011 uprising, the city has convulsed with more than its share of unrest. In Feb. 2012, a riot following a match between Port Said’s football clubal-Masry and the popular Cairo team al-Ahly left more than 70 dead. A year later, a court in Cairo sentenced 21 Port Said fans to death, catalyzing another round of protests which killed more than 40 others. With the police unable to regain control of the city, Morsi declared a state of emergency and, in a moment of foreboding, deployed the army to Port Said and two other cities along the Suez Canal.

The months of instability, and the economic toll they wrought, still sting in the minds of Port Said residents. During Monday’s election, voters brimmed with elation at voting for Sisi, a man who they said represented their aspirations for a brighter and more prosperous future.

Adjacent to the stadium where the 2012 riots took place, voters filed into a polling station set up inside the Port Said Sporting Club. A group of women holding Sisi posters and waving Egyptian flags cheered and danced along to ‘Bushret Kheir’. “Egypt is my mother and Sisi is my father!” shouted one woman, her hands smeared purple from the ink used to identify those who had already voted. Standing beside the cheering women was Tarek Ammar, the chairman of the club and a retired police major general. He said he was neutral in the election. “The citizens of Port Said, do not want anything like the events that took place in the stadium,” He said. “The solution to this problem is the state.”

In a nearby neighborhood, soldiers and police in full riot gear held back throngs of women pressing to enter the Port Said Girls High School. Parting the crowd on the way out of the polling station, a student named Rana Muhamad, 19, escorted her mother, Wafaa Ahmed Khalil, 44, a French teacher who traveled from Cairo to vote, in spite of a broken ankle in a cast. “I love him,” she said. “Basically, he’s a gentleman.” Khalil said he backs Sisi “because of safety and security, and also foreign relations. He’s a respected face from the military. Everything will be good.”

Every voter interviewed at seven polling stations in Port Said proclaimed support for Sisi. But not everyone is happy with the former field marshal’s ascent to the presidency. The proprietor of a fish restaurant facing the Mediterranean offered, along with sea bass and shrimp, “grilled Sisi, God willing.” The man asked not to be named. “After we talk, I’ll be arrested,” he said, crossing his wrists to signal handcuffs. In the 2012 election, he said he voted for moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh in the first round, and reluctantly backed Morsi in the second round. He is boycotting the current election. “There is repression now,” he said, “and I’m afraid of what’s coming next.”

TIME Egypt

Egypt Election Boycotts Can’t Stop Sisi’s Inevitable March to Presidency

Egyptian Army chief Field Marshal al-Sisi arrives for a meeting with Russian President Putin at Novo-Ogaryovo
Egyptian Army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrives for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, February 13, 2014. Maxim Shemetov—Reuters

Although many Egyptians consider this weekend's presidential election an undemocratic farce, little stands in the way of the former military commander's ascendancy to the nation's highest office

Two years ago, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a medical doctor and moderate Islamist politician, was a serious contender for Egypt’s presidency. Today, as Egypt lurches toward its second presidential contest in as many years, and its first since the military overthrew elected president Mohamed Morsi last July, Aboul Fotouh has refused to run again.

“This isn’t a democratic election,” he told TIME last week. “It’s more like a referendum with two names, and one of the candidates represents state institutions and the military.”

That candidate is Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the former commander of the armed forces who ousted and imprisoned Morsi, led a sweeping clampdown on Islamists under the guise of a “war against terrorism” and is now poised to prevail in the upcoming presidential election. “There’s no real competition because he’s had the support of the media since July 3,” Abul Fotouh said of the former military chief.

With a Sisi victory regarded as a near-certainty, the stage is set for an electoral anticlimax. Sisi’s only challenger, longtime Nasserist activist Hamdeen Sabahi, is polling in the single digits and struggling to overcome the cult of personality surrounding Sisi, who has positioned himself as the candidate of law and order and the man who rescued Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that alienated much of the public while in power and has been demonized in the media since the military takeover.

The upcoming election also comes in the aftermath of the deadliest period of political violence in Egypt’s recent history. In the wake of Morsi’s ouster, the military-backed government has arrested as many as 21,000 people including dissidents and journalists, outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, and killed more than 1,000 people during clashes with demonstrators. Islamist news organizations have been shut down, and a new law bans street demonstrations that take place without a government permit.

As a result, several distinct political blocs are refusing to participate in the election to protest the crackdown. The Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed president Morsi, who at one time were the largest organized force in Egyptian politics, are boycotting the election outright on the pretense that the position of president is “not currently vacant.” Many ordinary Egyptians plan to sit out the poll out of exhaustion and disgust with politics after more than three years of upheaval — a sea change from the colorful, chaotic, and unpredictable presidential campaign of 2012, when Aboul Fotouh ran as an independent.

The 62-year-old was a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the same group to which Morsi belongs. A voice of political pluralism, he was expelled from the organization in 2011 over his bid for the presidency. His campaign promised reform and assembled a rainbow coalition of Islamists and secular activists. In the first round of voting, he came in fourth, but still garnered more than four million votes, or more than 17% of the total.

Despite spending most of his career in Islamist politics, Aboul Fotouh condemned Morsi’s polarizing style of politics as president, and backed the protests against him. But the former candidate rues what has happened since Morsi was deposed. “In this security atmosphere, this republic of fear, true political, democratic hope isn’t possible,” he said. “This repression has to stop, this use of the security apparatus to oppress people, or else there will be another revolutionary explosion, dangerous for the country.”

Numerous activists, veterans of the protests against both Mubarak and Morsi, also regard the election as a pageant. Ali Hassan Ali, 51, campaigned after Mubarak’s departure to try and convict police and security officials responsible for the deaths of protesters. Today he is part of a group of activists urging what he calls a “positive boycott.” The idea is for people to show up at the polls, but write on their ballots that they reject the premise of the current election. “The goal of the boycott is to continue the revolution,” said Ali. “There is a large group of revolutionaries who reject this electoral process, because it is at its core the result of a military coup.”

The April Sixth Youth Movement, a group that was instrumental in helping to launch the protests against Mubarak, has also called for an election boycott weeks after the group’s activities were banned by a court order. “It became clear that this is theater and that Sabahi is joining just to make Sisi’s propaganda look good,” said Ramy El Swissy, co-founder of the movement and member of its political office, speaking in a separate interview. “There’s no such thing as a free election after a coup.”

Sabahi has not let such doubts dampen his candidacy, embarking on an upbeat multi-city campaign swing on May 16, through Nile Delta en route to Alexandria. His aides insist that the campaign is serious, noting that Sabahi came from behind in 2012 to finish third behind Morsi and Mubarak’s last Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. “We’re sure that Sabahi can win this election,” said Emad Atef, a member of Sabahi’s campaign committee.

But even Atef acknowledged the problem of voter fatigue. Since 2011, Egyptians have voted in three constitutional referendums, three phases of parliamentary voting, and a presidential election. “They’re tired of politics,” he said. “The political process hasn’t made any kind of real change in the last three years.”

That may be why many Egyptians, yearning for stability and hoping for an economic and social recovery, welcome the firm leadership that Sisi represents. “Sisi is a strong man. He has a military background. He knows there is terrorism in the country, that the entire Brotherhood is a terrorist organization. They killed people, police, and soldiers,” said Zeinab Abdel Halim, a grocer on a leafy corner in a middle class section of the Cairo neighborhood of Mohandiseen.

But millions of others remain disaffected. “If someone speaks against Sisi, they’re terrified. Everyone’s scared,” said Abdallah Mohamed Said, a taxi driver from the working class district of Shubra. “I’m not voting. There’s no point. Egypt is finished.”

The aura of inevitability gathering around Sisi has both drained the suspense from the current election cycle and moved the argument ahead to how Sisi will tackle Egypt’s stagnant economy, creaking infrastructure, and persistent Sinai-based armed insurgency, and whether the political crackdown will continue. The winner of the election “will be the president,” said Aboul Fotouh, sitting in his New Cairo office. “Their authority will be a reality,” he said, “de facto.”

TIME Egypt

Egypt’s Judges Flex Their Muscles

Egyptians react outside the courtroom in Egypt's southern province of Minya after an Egyptian court sentenced Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie and 682 alleged Brotherhood supporters to death on April 28, 2014 Khaled Desouki—AFP/Getty Images

The ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi has emboldened judges to display their political independence, but some worry they're trampling rights in an effort to curry favor with the new government, as human-rights groups say more than 21,000 have been detained

Egypt’s interim President Adly Mansour is a judge, but the country’s most notorious jurist may well be the man known as the Butcher. Said Youssef issued a pair of rulings in March and April sentencing more than 1,200 people to death — after two trials lasting less than an hour each. The verdicts were applauded by the most vocal members of Egypt’s progovernment media. Among rights advocates in Egypt and abroad, the reaction to the mass sentencing was a unison chorus of condemnation. But the international outrage was matched only by the puzzlement of those wondering: How could any judge issue such a sweeping and seemingly inexplicable set of rulings?

The verdicts, issued in the province of Minya, cast a spotlight on Egypt’s judiciary, an immense and politically mixed institution that prides itself on its independence — a fact the government’s spokesmen cited in response to the international furor over the death sentences. “Egyptian judges are independent and there is no control over them,” Justice Minister Nayer Osman told reporters after the April verdict. “No one in the state is directing the judge — neither a minister nor an official.”

The Minya cases highlighted the autonomous power of judges within the Egyptian state, but also exposed the uncomfortable reality that many judges feel a sense of loyalty to Egypt’s even more powerful police and security apparatus. With Egypt’s media and much of the public still gripped by an anti-Islamist frenzy, other judges may simply issue rulings based on the prevailing political winds.

“This was a political ruling, violating all the judicial principles that we have in Egypt,” says Ahmed Mekky, who as a judge was a supporter of Egypt’s judicial-independence movement. Mekky also served as Justice Minister under deposed President Mohamed Morsi, but resigned from the cabinet over what he viewed as an Islamist “assault” on the judiciary.

“There is no interference in the sense that the ruling was based on orders from [presidential favorite and former military chief Abdul Fattah] al-Sisi or from his regime,” Mekky says. “Rather, this interference is a reflection of the general climate in which the judiciary has malice within it.”

Since the military removed Morsi — an Islamist and former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood — from power following a wave of protests last July, Egypt’s judiciary has been on the front lines of the new government’s clampdown on Islamist groups and other dissidents. More than 16,000 people have been arrested since Morsi’s ouster, according to official figures, but rights groups say more than 21,000 have been detained.

With such huge numbers of people detained, mass trials have become a daily occurrence. The government asserts the arrests are a needed step to combat militancy and restore stability, an argument many judges have endorsed by handing down harsh sentences for protesters and members of Islamist groups.

Often such rulings make use of Egypt’s vague penal code, including laws against “insulting the judiciary” and “membership in a banned group,” as well as a new law that bans any street protest without explicit government permission. For example, last Saturday the criminal court in the town of Banha, just north of Cairo, sentenced seven people to life in prison for the nonlethal crime of blocking roads during a demonstration last August. Another group of 119 protesters were sentenced in April to three years in prison in connection with an Islamist-led demonstration in Cairo in October. On the same day as the second mass death sentence, Cairo’s Court of Urgent Matters banned the activities of the April 6 Youth Movement, a dissident group that played a key role in organizing the January 2011 uprising that ended the presidency of Hosni Mubarak.

“This is not a case of one judge having gone off the rails. You have an entire justice system that’s going off the rails,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “It’s not simply about being overburdened, it’s about consistently failing to ensure that defendants have due process and each receive free and fair trials.”

The specifics of the Minya cases rendered the verdicts all the more shocking in the eyes of the outside observers. In the first case, in March, 529 defendants stood collectively accused of murdering a single police officer and attempting to kill two others, attempted murder, threatening public order, burning a police station and belonging to a banned group, the Muslim Brotherhood. The trial lasted less than an hour, and the prosecution did not produce any evidence implicating a specific defendant. In the second case, in April, 683 people were sentenced to death, also over the killing of a police officer.

A number of obstacles remain to the implementation of the death sentences. Under Egyptian law, the country’s Grand Mufti must first approve any execution. Of the first group of death sentences, all but 37 have already been commuted to 25-year prison terms.

Many of Egypt’s judges sparred with President Mubarak during the three decades of his authoritarian rule. Though Mubarak’s appointees left a deep imprint on the judiciary, some judges chafed at the regime’s use of torture and military courts. Even in spite of the attempts to stack the courts with proregime judges, a judicial-independence movement gathered force, reaching a high-water mark with judges’ denunciation of fraud in the 2005 elections.

By the time of the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak, some protesters regarded judges as a force for integrity within the state. Judges also clashed fiercely with Morsi, revolting against his attempts to bring the judiciary under greater executive oversight. But few of Egypt’s nearly 15,000 judges and prosecutors spoke publicly against the Minya ruling, even though it appeared to lack even basic internal logic. The judiciary’s history as a strong institution and its avowed culture of independence has fostered a sense of professional solidarity among judges.

“Each judge here in Egypt chooses his own way of thinking,” says one judge from a major Cairo court, when asked about the Minya case. The jurist, who has asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter, says he believes Egyptian judges generally maintain their political neutrality, and that the Minya case had been blown out of proportion in the media. “We don’t deal with people, we deal with evidence.”

Nathan Brown, a political scientist at the George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., who speaks regularly with Egyptian judges, says the judiciary has a strong sense of corporate identity. “It’s a profession where they don’t want to air their dirty laundry in public, so that, even judges who are uncomfortable with this verdict would certainly not want to go on the record and would at most criticize it obliquely,” Brown says.

“There were a lot of judges who were just spooked by the Morsi presidency,” Brown adds. “They’ve reacted since July by continuing the battle and seeing themselves as part of an attempt to restore the authority of the Egyptian state using whatever means were available to them.”

Often the outcomes of key cases hinge on which judges are tapped to oversee them. Judicial experts say there’s been a trend of politically significant cases, including mass trials, being handed to judges who are most eager to clamp down on the Muslim Brotherhood. “There are certainly some lawsuits where judges are selected in a manner that is not necessarily politicized and it is fully an internal process within the judiciary, but it is [with] the high-profile cases that have some political implication,” says Sahar Aziz, a professor of law at Texas A&M University and a board member of the Egyptian-American Rule of Law Association.

Even though some members of Egypt’s judicial firmament find fault with the excesses of their peers, legal experts stressed in interviews that whatever mistakes had been made, the Minya rulings were made in “accordance with the law,” or in Arabic, bil qanun. Given the ambiguity of Egyptian law, bil qanun has proved an elastic notion in a moment when the Mubarak-era security state is reasserting its power. “The decision itself, it’s a harsh decision. At the same time, I can’t say it’s not in compliance with Egyptian criminal law,” says Mohamed Arafa, a professor of law at Alexandria University, in Egypt, and Indiana University, in the U.S.

Or, in the words of the Cairo judge who speaks anonymously: “It was legal.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser