How I became Defendant 33—yet another casualty of the return to military ruleEmad El-Din Shahin
On January 3, 2014, Egyptian security forces surrounded my house in Cairo at dawn, performing military drills and making noises that shook the building. I vividly remember my wife’s screams as her face turned purple: “They are here! They are here! They are coming to take you! They are here to arrest you!” For reasons still not entirely clear to me, the security forces left after about half an hour, without so much as knocking on my door. At the first light, I decided to spare my wife this unbearable fear and leave. I purchased a ticket at the airport and haven’t returned to Egypt since.
On the plane ride, I reflected on what is surely one of the shortest political experiments of our time. Just three years earlier, Egyptians had risen up and brought down a dictator, Hosni Mubarak, in one of the greatest manifestations of people power in modern history. But in the summer of 2013, the democratic aspirations of millions of Egyptians had been dashed when the ancien régime regained control of the country in a military coup against the nation’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. By the time of my departure, the military government had already committed numerous atrocities—including mass killings and mass arrests—as part of an unprecedented project of mass political exclusion. I thought back to the revolutionary Tahrir Square chants of “dignity” and “social justice,” and the high expectations that had accompanied democratic elections. All of this, it seemed, had been lost in the face of a ruthless counterrevolution at home and complacency abroad.
On Saturday, an Egyptian court convicted and sentenced me to death in absentia on the basis of false and fabricated charges. The court never specified the crime that I supposedly committed or produced a shred of evidence for my culpability. I was listed as “Defendant 33,” and the charges in my case were broadly defined as espionage—conspiring to undermine Egypt’s national security. On the same day that I was condemned to death, the court handed down the same fate to Morsi and more than 100 others in another case, including one Palestinian man who has been in an Israeli jail since 1996. Of course, he couldn’t possibly have committed the crime—organizing a 2011 prison break—for which he stood accused. But such details don’t appear to have troubled the court. Two of the Palestinian men sentenced to death on Saturday were already dead, according to Hamas; one had passed away years before the jailbreak. Egypt’s politicized judiciary, it seems, is as incompetent as it is corrupt.
These sentences are just the latest in a long line of travesties of justice carried out by Egypt’s judges, who have been condemned by organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. This is, after all, the same judiciary that in March 2014 sentenced more than 500 people to death for the alleged killing of a single policeman. It was the first of four mass death sentences delivered over roughly one year by courts that continue to aid the current Egyptian government, led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in its bid to monopolize power and eliminate all voices of dissent. Those they cannot kill with live bullets, they kill with sentencing and executions.
The essential conflict in Egypt isn’t between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood; it’s between military rule and democratic rule.
It may seem strange to some that I, a scholar of political science, would be implicated in a high-profile legal case. Then again, it is hard to explain the irrationality of an insecure regime. After the 2013 ouster of Morsi, my research and writing described—in uncomfortable detail—the military government’s harsh policies of exclusion. I called what happened on July 3, 2013, a brutal and bloody military coup. I wrote and spoke of the deaths of hundreds of Egyptians, the arrests of thousands more, and the sexual assault of female students. The regime, I suspect, perceived me as a nuisance. I am well-known inside the academic community and my work is respected in the United States, where the military government has expended enormous energy (and financial resources) to try and restore its image. Moreover, I had access to international media outlets, which often turned to me for analysis of developments in Egypt. In an apparent effort to undermine my message, the Egyptian authorities have portrayed me as a treasonous and evil figure without Egypt’s best interests in mind.
Since the coup, I have also participated in several efforts to establish a civilian governing coalition and restore democracy in Egypt. The coup leaders aren’t interested in such initiatives, and have instead opted for polarization, escalation, and exclusionism. They wage a “war on terror” as a pretext to commit state-sponsored violence and restore a military state. Yet six decades of military rule have left a bankrupt legacy. In 2013, Egypt was ranked last in the world in terms of the quality of primary education. It has been ranked 94 out of 175 countries for corruption and 112 out of 189 for ease of doing business.
In many ways, I am lucky. Thousands of Egyptians who remained in the country have been killed or jailed. Since the coup, I have encountered scores of Egyptians, some in exile, who have recounted tales of lost financial resources, lost jobs, lost property, and lost life. I still research and teach, and have embraced new hope in exile. The current Egyptian judicial system is devoid of due process, regard for evidence, and minimum standards of justice, which makes it futile to return to Egypt to appeal my sentence. The essential conflict in today’s Egypt is ostensibly between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, but it’s really between military rule and democratic, civilian rule. I will continue striving for the just cause of democracy and rule of law in Egypt. “Dignity” and “social justice” were not chanted in Tahrir Square in vain.