Egypt's courts going soft on Islamist protesters? Not so fast

A court in Alexandria has ruled in favor of 21 women and girls convicted of joining an anti-coup protest. But other followers of former President Morsi are unlikely to get lenient treatment.

Eman Helal/AP
Women supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi stand inside the defendants' cage in an Egyptian court, Saturday.

Followers of deposed President Mohamed Morsi have been reeling since July’s coup. A court ruling on Saturday to release 21 women and girls jailed for joining a protest offered some relief to those who resisted the coup. But it does not mean that Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, or other activists who take to the streets, can expect leniency as Egypt’s military continues to maintain a tight grip on power.  

The women and girls were arrested in Alexandria in October during a largely peaceful protest against the coup. The women – mostly in their late teens – were held in detention for almost a month, then put on trial for charges including vandalism, rioting, and carrying weapons. The court speedily convicted them after just one hearing, and handed down a harsh sentence – 11 years in jail for the 14 women, and detention in a juvenile facility until age 18 for the seven minors.

According to Human Rights Watch, the defendants' lawyers were not allowed to call any witnesses during the hearing, and the court's ruling did not contain credible evidence that any of them participated individually in the crimes they were accused of. The rights group called the convictions a “dangerous message” from Egypt's courts to Muslim Brotherhood protesters.

In yesterday’s ruling, the appeals court reduced the 11-year terms for the women to one year’s suspended sentence, and said that the minors should serve only three months of probation. In separate hearings, state media reported Saturday that 155 people arrested during October clashes between Islamist protesters and police had been acquitted of assaulting police and vandalism.

But it is unlikely that all pro-Morsi protesters can expect similar outcomes. The case against the 21 women and girls garnered sympathy even outside Islamist circles, both because of the harsh sentences and because those convicted were young women. Even Egyptians who agree with government claims that many Muslim Brotherhood protesters are terrorists found it hard to reconcile this rhetoric with the sight of teenagers who appeared in court fresh-faced, smiling, and yesterday, even holding pink roses.

While they will be released, hundreds of others arrested at protests remain in pretrial detention, along with thousands of ordinary Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters. Trials of the movement’s leaders are ongoing. And no court has commuted the 17-year sentences given to 12 students at Al Azhar University for holding pro-Morsi protests in October on the university's campus.  

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