From Egyptian judges: conspiracy theories, mass death sentences, and freedom for Mubarak

Space for dissent in Egypt is shrinking fast, as impunity for the powerful appears to be, once again, on the rise.

Judge Mahmoud Kamel al-Rashidi, seen here Nov. 29, dropped charges against ousted president Hosni Mubarak last weekend. In his ruling, he wrote that the 2011 uprising was part of a vast 'international, American, Hebrew conspiracy.'

A few days ago, an Egyptian judge tossed out a conviction against former dictator Hosni Mubarak that had found him responsible for the deaths of 11 protesters as he clung to power in early 2011, on rather odd procedural reasoning.

Yesterday, another Egyptian judge sentenced 188 people to death for participating in an Aug. 14, 2013 riot that saw a police station near Cairo sacked and 14 people die, most of them Egyptian police. That riot was sparked by a crackdown on protesters the same day that left at least 817 people dead and, in the words of Human Rights Watch, "probably amounts to crimes against humanity" and was "one of the world's largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history."

No one has been charged in the 817 deaths, which occurred as military and police dispersed an encampment of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters in Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya Square. The protesters were calling for a reversal of the coup that had returned the military to power a month earlier.

Egypt's courts pride themselves on what they claim is their independence from political interference and commitment to evenhandedness. But over the past year, they have reasserted themselves as fierce protectors of state power, and as tools for muzzling dissenters. The Rabaa massacre was in many ways the end of the beginning for the military's return to dominance, and was followed by mass arrests of almost the entire top leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Mohamed Morsi had won Egypt's first free presidential election in 2012.

Two developments followed: the election of retired Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, head of the junta that ousted Mr. Morsi, to the presidency earlier this year; and an ongoing process of dismantling competing political movements, be they secular-leaning or Islamist. It is hard to look at recent rulings in Egypt and not conclude that the impunity for abuses by security forces that reigned in the Mubarak years – and created the fury that led to the 2011 uprising – is back in force.

Nagy Shehata, the judge who condemned 188 to death yesterday, also presided over the farcical trial of three Al Jazeera English journalists: Egyptian Baher Mohamed, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, and Australian Peter Greste. All three were sentenced to seven years in jail last June. The "evidence" consisted of assertions that they were in league with the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorists to damage Egypt. In a written explanation of his verdict, Mr. Shehata said the three men has been "encouraged by the devil to use journalism against this nation." 

The men still languish in prison. While almost any journalist working in Egypt at that time would have had "links" to the Muslim Brotherhood (when I worked in the country, my cellphone was filled with numbers for their spokesmen and senior officials), that wasn't even a legitimate argument in the case of Mr. Greste – a Kenya-based correspondent who was in Egypt on temporary assignment.

In November, Egypt's lawyers union accused Shehata in a statement of "terrorizing" the defense attorneys for left-leaning political activist Ahmed Douma. The judge had referred five of the six-member team to prosecutors for investigation for not showing him due respect. He then referred the union for investigation for its statement.

The Mubarak judge

The judge who tossed out the Mubarak case was Mahmoud Kamel al-Rashidi. His reasoning: Since Mubarak was added to the list of accused suspects in the killings of protesters two months after charges were first filed against others, prosecutors had made “an implied decision that there were no grounds for criminal proceedings" (in the translation of Egyptian lawyer and rights activist Hossam Baghat). That's legal reasoning a yoga instructor could be proud of. For good measure, he also acquitted the Mubarak officials who'd originally been part of the case, including then-Interior Minister Habib al-Adly. 

Mr. Rashidi wasn't exactly coy about his motivations.

In his ruling, he wrote that the 2011 uprising was part of a vast "international, American, Hebrew conspiracy" that aims to break large Arab nations into smaller ones and thereby secure the future of Israel. He said that the instruments of this conspiracy (which he called an "Axis of Evil," borrowing President George W. Bush's famous phrase) include Al Qaeda, the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar (a staunch backer of Egypt's now-outlawed Brotherhood), Iran, and Hamas, among others.

Rashidi writes that agents of the conspiracy infiltrated the 2011 protests with hidden weapons, forcing security forces to fire in self-defense. His reasons for this belief? The past statements to the same effect of Mubarak's former vice president and intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman (since deceased), and Mubarak's former Defense Minister Hussein Tantawy, among others.

No criticism from the US

The US State Department has resolutely refused to criticize the dismissal of the charges against Mubarak, or more generally to comment meaningfully on Egypt's courts. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, pressed for a US response to Mubarak's acquittal, twice repeated that "we continue to believe that upholding impartial standards of accountability will advance the political consensus on which Egypt’s long-term stability and economic growth depends." Ms. Psaki said further questions about the Mubarak verdict or the quality of the Egyptian judiciary should be directed to Egyptian officials.

Yesterday, Psaki was slightly more forthcoming. While refusing to comment on the Mubarak case, she said: "We have, throughout many, many months, raised very many concerns about the Egyptian judicial processes, including when they sentenced a huge – hundreds of people to death sentences."

For now, the Obama administration continues to stand four-square behind President Sisi and Egypt. As Obama said in September ahead of a meeting with Sisi in New York: "The US-Egyptian relationship has been an important cornerstone of our security policy and our policy in the Middle East for a very long time. This is our first opportunity face-to-face to discuss a wide range of issues -- everything from the Palestinian-Israeli situation in Gaza, to Libya, to the issues of [the Islamic State], Iraq, and Syria." In June, the US released partially frozen US military aid, just before the Al Jazeera verdicts. In September, the US said 10 Apache attack helicopters would soon be delivered to the country.

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