A death penalty for Morsi that Egypt won’t rush to carry out

Cairo knows that implementing the harshest punishment for the Muslim Brotherhood’s ex-president could backfire

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Egypt's former president Mohammed Morsi sits in the defendant's cage during a court hearing in Cairo, Egypt, November 3, 2014. (AP/Mohammed al-Law)
Egypt's former president Mohammed Morsi sits in the defendant's cage during a court hearing in Cairo, Egypt, November 3, 2014. (AP/Mohammed al-Law)

An Egyptian court’s decision to sentence to death the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, including former president Mohammed Morsi, on Saturday was far from surprising.

The ruling was another declarative step by the Egyptian government, which occasionally uses the courts to show its tough stance on the Islamist movement. But despite the numerous death penalties handed out since the country’s second revolution in June 2013, the courts are in no hurry to carry out their sentences.

Everyone understands that going ahead with a death penalty may trigger an opposite reaction to that desired by the Egyptian government — namely, the enflaming of streets in cities across the country, rather than the deterring of Muslim Brotherhood recruits. One member of the movement was executed in February, but only because he was convicted of murdering children by throwing them off a roof.

Morsi was convicted along with 104 defendants, 27 of whom are in custody, for allowing mass prison breaks, including from the jail in which Morsi himself was incarcerated, the Wadi al-Natron facility. The charges also included an attack on police stations during the revolution against president Hosni Mubarak in January 2011.

Morsi’s sentence will be now examined by the Mufti, Egypt’s Islamic leader, and after his ruling is given the ex-president can appeal again to the Supreme Court, a process which could potentially drag on for several months.

Also among the convicts are several members of Hamas and Hezbollah who were tried in absentia, the most famous among them being Ayman Nufal, the Hamas commander of one of the refugee camps in the central Gaza Strip. The decision to sentence him to death isn’t indicative of a deterioration in ties between Egypt and Hamas, because the state of affairs between the two sides has already reached an unimaginably low point.

Hamas knew that Nufal was slated for the death penalty along with other members of the group’s military wing, which Egypt declared a few months ago to be a terrorist organization. And a response by Hamas was not long in coming. Sami Abu Zuhri, the organization’s spokesman in Gaza, said that the decision of the court was “unfortunate and difficult.” Still, he added that Hamas would not allow itself to be dragged into Egypt’s domestic political arena.

“For years we have heard accusations against us without any proof,” Abu Zuhri said. During a recent meeting between senior Hamas members and Egyptian intelligence officials, he claimed, no evidence was presented to implicate his organization in any inter-Egyptian conflicts.

This is probably true. To date, Egyptian authorities have produced no clear evidence of terrorist activities carried out by Hamas in the country. But there is evidence the group has provided logistical support to the Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula.

Perhaps that is the message Egypt is attempting to convey to the leaders of Hamas: that it had better halt all collaboration with terrorist groups in Sinai. But these groups show no signs of fatigue. Over the weekend, three Egyptian judges were killed in attacks by Islamic State-affiliated extremists in northeastern Sinai.

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