Egypt’s Sisi still has a blank cheque for repression

The lack of reaction to the confirmation of 12 death sentences in the Rabaa case shows el-Sisi faces no serious pressure to change his brutal ways.

Muslim Brotherhood's senior member Mohamed El-Beltagi sits behind the bars during a court session in Cairo on December 2, 2018 [File: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh]

On June 14, just two weeks before the eighth anniversary of the coup against President Mohamed Morsi, an Egyptian court confirmed the death sentences of 12 supporters of the late president. The decision came as no surprise to the human rights community. Ever since he overthrew Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, on July 3, 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has ruled Egypt with an iron fist, trying to eradicate any form of opposition.

More than 1,000 people were killed in the events of 2013, tens of thousands were imprisoned, many forcefully disappeared and tortured. Since the coup, the Geneva-based rights group Committee for Justice has also documented the cases of 92 political prisoners who have been executed in Egypt. Death sentences for another 64, which have been upheld by the highest appeals court and ratified by el-Sisi, could be carried out at any moment.

The confirmation of the 12 death sentences is the climax of one of the most farcical trials in Egypt’s history which dealt with the brutal dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-in at Rabaa al-Adaweya square in Cairo following the coup. Instead of prosecuting the security forces who perpetrated what Human Rights Watch described as “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history”, the Egyptian authorities put the sit-in leaders on trial. Many of those who survived the massacre were jailed in conditions that amount to premeditated murder and a number of them have already died in jail, including Morsi himself.

The intelligence agencies were preparing the public opinion for several months for a potential move against the leaders of the Rabaa sit-in. In addition to a media campaign demonising the anti-coup demonstrations, a TV series aired in Ramadan depicted the demonstrators as terrorists, while absolving the security forces of any responsibility for the massacre.

Despite repeated condemnations by human rights organisations, el-Sisi does not seem to feel threatened by any potential international backlash against the executions. In fact, he currently appears to be at the peak of his power, both domestically and regionally.

During Donald Trump’s term as US president, el-Sisi felt emboldened to press forward with his repressive policies. When Trump lost the US presidential election to Joe Biden in November 2020, the Egyptian president sought to preempt any criticism from the new US administration by appearing to change course on human rights. In December 2020, the ministry of foreign affairs announced that the government was working on a “national strategy for human rights”. The media then started speculating about the imminent release of political prisoners.

El-Sisi even made steps towards normalisation of relations with Qatar, which were damaged after he joined Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain in imposing a blockade on the country in 2017.

In May, when Israel launched its latest assault on Gaza, el-Sisi seized the moment with unprecedented pragmatism to emerge as an important mediator for peace and defender of Western interests. He brokered a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, for which he was widely praised in the West.

Meanwhile, he continued to reposition himself by slowly moving away from Abu Dhabi. His relations with Qatar improved, to the extent that the death sentences were upheld while his foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, was in Doha, speaking to Al Jazeera.

On the other hand, the regime’s opponents – the Muslim Brotherhood – gradually lost political ground in the face of the regime’s diplomatic offensive in the region and are on a path of retreat.

Domestic repression has successfully silenced all dissent in Egypt, with the active support of the judiciary. Since the assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat in 2015, the regime has purposefully subordinated and weaponised the judicial system against its opponents.

Egyptian courts have legalised the pretrial imprisonment of tens of thousands of people for years, issued death sentences, and enabled the state to seize the assets of successful businessmen. In 2015, it even went against the national interest to approve el-Sisi’s decision to transfer two strategic islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.

Facing little criticism from the West and feeling more confident at home and in the region, el-Sisi does not feel pressured to stop his murderous campaign against the opposition.

Therefore, he is unlikely to refrain from ratifying the death sentences or commuting them to life sentences.

It is more likely that the executions would be carried out, as there are no indications that there will be a sharp reaction from the West or the international community as a whole. Alternatively, el-Sisi may ratify the death sentences but postpone the executions indefinitely in order to use them as a bargaining chip with his opponents abroad, or in case external pressure on human rights or democratic transition emerges.

The silence of the international community on el-Sisi’s gradual campaign of opposition extermination stands in sharp contrast to the recent events in The Hague, where the life sentence of Serb military leader Ratko Mladić, nicknamed the “Butcher of Bosnia”, was confirmed. Mladić and el-Sisi are both serial killers, but one’s career has ended, while the other is flourishing amid impunity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.