An Egyptian court sentenced 529 members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood to death on Monday, sending an unmistakable message: Stop the insurgency or die.
Even though the sentences are unlikely to be carried out, due to appeals and foreign pressure, the quick and harsh ruling represents the mood of the regime and its supporters – crush the Brotherhood so as not to give its members any way to weasel their way back to positions of political power.
After all, the military-backed government took power in a coup, and Arab political culture and history dictate that the opposition will seek to harm the regime in any way it can.
The government is in a post-coup phase, trying to bring order and shift to improving the economic situation, but the Islamic insurgency will not go away.
Look at the upheavals taking place in other Arab countries. There is hardly one that is not engulfed in turmoil, tensions or war.
Islamic history shows that rulers who lead with a strong hand, even if they may be oppressive, are preferable to chaos.
“For their part, the Sunnis were obliged to compromise on their definitions of what constitutes a legitimate and just ruler and to accept a series of usurpers and tyrants whose only claim to power was the possession of sufficient military force to seize and hold it,” the historian Bernard Lewis wrote in Islam and the West.
“Accepting them meant recognizing their legitimacy in terms of Shari’a [Islamic law], and this in turn meant that obedience to them was a religious obligation, disobedience a sin as well as a crime. Tyranny, according to a common saying, is better than anarchy,” he wrote.
There are, however, rumors that the government is in contact with the Brotherhood.
Diplomatic sources claim that former Brotherhood member Kamal al-Helbawy is secretly mediating in Europe between the group and the government, the Iraqi daily Azzaman reported on Sunday.
The goal is to reach an agreement to stop the violence and reintegrate the Brotherhood into politics, the paper said.
However, analysts doubt that any serious talks are underway.
Nathan Brown, an expert on Arab politics who is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday he doubts any meaningful negotiations between the two sides are under way, but he admits that it is within the realm of possibility.
“I am extremely doubtful that there will be any deal between the regime and the Brotherhood any time soon. Neither side has a position now that is amenable to compromise,” said Brown.
Asked if the death sentences may have originated with the political leadership, Brown responded that he sees this as unlikely, as he has not seen any evidence to back up this assertion.
“However, the security apparatus is both victim here (it was a police station that was attacked) and the source of the evidence,” he said, pointing out that “it has shown few scruples in marshaling evidence.”
In addition, parts of the judiciary seem to be “fully on board with the wave of repression,” though he does not think the sentences will be carried out.
Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, seemed to agree, telling the Post that it is likely the judge acted on his own.
The judge “may have been seeking to showcase his loyalty to the regime and got overzealous in his efforts, or he might subscribe to the general hysteria sweeping the country,” said Tadros.
He, too, is skeptical of the report of secret negotiations, and of their potential for success if they are indeed taking place.
“The Brotherhood leadership is incapable of cutting a deal even if it wants to, due to the base’s radicalization,” he said, saying that “too much blood has been spilled.”
Also, the regime is in no mood to compromise, said Tadros, adding that the constitutional referendum gave it confidence, and there is no serious international pressure to change its behavior.
Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sees the verdict as representing a continuation of the crackdown on the Brotherhood.
It “is highly indicative of the deep animosity toward the Brotherhood within state institutions, and particular the judiciary,” he told the Post.
Asked about possible secret communication between the government and the Brotherhood, Trager responded that there have been contacts here and there, but it should be remembered that the group is strident in its view that there should be no deal short of former president Mohamed Morsi returning to power. And this of course is anathema to the regime.
The popular Egyptian blogger The Big Pharaoh told the Post that one explanation for the verdict is that it appears that the judiciary is operating on its own, "taking revenge" on the Brotherhood.
Also, the judge is known for previous bizarre verdicts, he said.