Death sentences against Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt

An act of reckoning

Attracting little attention from the world at large, Egypt's military regime has been mercilessly going after dissidents. Now, the first executions of prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood loom. All the while, the true extent of the crackdown remains unknown. By Jannis Hagmann

The last time Omar had a chance to speak to his relative Osama Yaseen was in the courtroom. Yaseen, a well-known member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and a former minister, sat in a glass cage during the proceedings. But on that day in March 2018, the guards briefly unlocked the door so that the two could exchange condolences. Omar's grandmother had passed away.

Now another of Omar's relatives is doomed to die, for Osama has been given a death sentence. "They treat him like an animal, like a rat," says the Egyptian, who is living in exile and whose name has been changed here for his safety. He can't understand how the government can execute a former minister. "Osama has done great things for the country. How can he suddenly be declared a terrorist overnight?"

Osama Yaseen was minister of youth under Egypt's Islamist ex-president Mohammed Morsi. The fact that he sat in the same cabinet as the current president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, from 2012 to 2013, gives the whole story a touch of tragicomedy. Sisi was defence minister before he took over as head of state with the help of the military, ousting Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president after the 2011 revolution.

Ever since the coup in July 2013, President Sisi has been cracking down with unprecedented force on the Muslim Brotherhood, whose party won around 40 percent of the seats in parliament after the revolution and in only a few months became the strongest force in the country. Hundreds, if not thousands, of the party's supporters vanished behind bars, and the Brotherhood was banned and classified as a terrorist organisation.

Should the Sisi regime actually go through with the execution of Osama Yaseen and other prominent Islamists such as Mohamed Beltagy, it will be the first time a death sentence has been carried out on Muslim Brotherhood leaders. In June, Egypt's highest criminal court upheld the death sentences for Yaseen, Beltagy and ten other convicts. "He wants them dead," Omar says with certainty, "especially Osama and Mohamed Beltagy. They are big names in the Muslim Brotherhood."

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood in cages in an Egyptian courtroom (photo: Reuters/A. A. Dalsh)
"A total of 739 people were charged, around 400 of whom the court sentenced to several years in prison in 2018, while another 50 or so got life sentences. In June, the Supreme Criminal Court confirmed the death penalty for twelve convicts and life imprisonment for the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie," writes Jannis Hagmann. Pictured here: Members of the Muslim brotherhood in cages during their trial in Egypt

Mass trial of survivors

The prosecution of the two prominent Islamists was part of a controversial mass trial. A total of 739 people were charged, around 400 of whom the court sentenced to several years in prison in 2018, while another 50 or so got life sentences. In June, the Supreme Criminal Court confirmed the death penalty for twelve convicts and life imprisonment for the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie.

"The trial was a joke," says Omar, "the charges, the witnesses, everything." To this day, he still doesn't know the exact reason why his relative was sentenced to death. Egyptian human rights organisations that have no connection with the Muslim Brotherhood have likewise criticised the trial as amounting to "retaliation against political opponents of the government under Abdul Fattah al-Sisi." They contend that the public prosecutors are taking revenge in this way on the 700 people who survived the so-called Rabaa Massacre.

After the 2013 coup, thousands of people set up a protest camp on Rabaa al-Adawiya square in eastern Cairo to demonstrate against Sisi's takeover. It was obviously only a matter of time before the camp would be disbanded, but on 14 August, regime forces struck more violently than anyone had thought possible. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 817 protesters were killed, with the actual number "probably more than a thousand".

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