Judge Mohamed Nagy Shehata was in the spotlight again on Saturday when he upheld death sentences for 14 Muslim Brotherhood leaders convicted of terrorism-related charges, including Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, who has now been sentenced to death in three separate cases since 2013.
Shehata also sent 37 other people to life in prison on Saturday, including Mohamed Soltan, a prominent Egyptian-American detainee who has been hunger striking against his detention since January 2014 — the longest hunger strike by a political detainee in Egypt in recent memory. According to the Journalists Syndicate, three journalists were also among those sentenced to life.
The defendants were tried on charges of establishing an operations room to instruct Brotherhood members to confront the authorities and spread chaos after the deadly dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda Square sit-ins in August 2013, in what became known as the “Rabea operations room” case. They were also accused of providing monetary support to Rabea al-Adaweya protests and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as disseminating false information to destabilize Egypt.
Analysts say it’s likely that Saturday’s verdict will be overturned once challenged at the Court of Appeals, as Shehata’s verdicts are notorious for being overly punitive. Halim Heniesh, Soltan’s lawyer, told Mada Masr that there were clear legal loopholes in the ruling, and he was confident that an appeal would be successful.
Heniesh pointed to the recent appeal granted in the so-called “Mariott cell” case. Shehata had presided over the high-profile trial of three Al Jazeera employees — Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy — who were arrested on terrorism-related charges stemming from accusations of falsely reporting on circumstances following former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. Shehata handed down sentences of seven to 10 years in prison for the three men, but the Appeals Court granted them a retrial.
But despite these hopes for an appeal, the verdict could still carry a strong political message in the ongoing battle between the ousted Muslim Brotherhood and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s current administration.
Kamal Habib, a writer who focuses on Islamist organizations, says that the state has never taken such severe measures against the Brotherhood, even during the most intense moments in its decades-old conflict with the group.
“In the time of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Supreme Guide Hassan al-Hodaiby received a similar [death] sentence, but it was reduced to a life sentence,” Habib explains.
The state has executed a total of eight Brotherhood leaders, all of whom under Nasser’s administration. The 1954 crackdown on the group resulted in five of those executions, while three others, including Sayed Kotb, were put to death in 1966, Habib recounts.
“Even when we recall the verdicts from the Nasserist era, the comparison remains impossible. The state did not suffer from existentialist threats regarding its legitimacy. Now, the Brotherhood is a strong organization with a clear presence on the ground. The move to execute its leaders en masse will be catastrophic,” he warns.
Resorting to such draconian measures would reveal a marked shift in the “state’s traditions,” according to Habib — the same state that executed only five Islamists in the wake of late President Anwar al-Sadat’s assassination at the hands of Islamist extremists.
Ahmed Ban, a former Brotherhood member and researcher on Islamist movements, agrees with Habib. He believes that if the state goes forward with executing Brotherhood leaders, it would definitively bury any possible hopes for reconciliation with the group.
“Across the history of the battle, there were some lines respected by both sides. If the state attempts to cross these lines, this will definitely push the organization to adopt a jihadist-style strategic approach toward the state,” Ban asserts.
According to Ban, the Brotherhood has adopted different hats during its historic confrontation with the state. The group first took on a preaching role during its early years, but shifted to a jihadist approach between 1940 and 1965. A third hat then took favor in 1970, when the organization took a “calm” approach in its negotiations with the state. Then in 2004, the organization moved toward liberal movements and democratic change.
“The organization’s new approach will be determined by how the state will handle the battle. If executions are applied, a jihadist approach will only be a matter of time,” argues Ban.
But despite that threat, he doesn’t foresee the state changing the general rules of the game, due to economic and security challenges that will ultimately push the state to work toward reconciliation.