This past week, an Egyptian court sentenced to death former president Mohammed Morsi, along with 130 other defendants, for their participation in a mass jailbreak and their roles in subsequent attacks on the police and the military that led to the overthrow of the government of Hosni Mubarek.
This sentence comes on the heels of Morsi’s receiving a 20-year sentence for countering protests against his government with armed force, orders which resulted in the deaths of dozens of the protesters. Moreover, the death sentence comes ahead of another potential death sentence for Morsi’s “treasonous” involvement with “foreign” and “international” groups with Shi’ite and Iranian connections.
Perhaps, these sorts of trials and verdicts are all too predictable as one authoritarian regime replaces another. Nonetheless, the moral logic at work here is as tenuous as the political logic may be obvious.
For three decades, Mubarek ruled Egypt so repressively that there was a general uprising against his regime. Although the Muslim Brotherhood certainly featured prominently in that uprising, there was clearly a much broader dissatisfaction with Mubarek. In the elections that followed, Morsi won the presidency with a narrow majority of the vote. No one could claim that his election was clearly illegitimate, and if he had been the leader of a more secular movement, his escape from prison, his role in the overthrow of a repressive regime, and his election to the presidency would have been framed as another remarkable illustration of the irrepressible force of democracy.
But, following that electoral victory, Morsi seemed to overreach and to be attempting to replace a fairly secular autocracy with a more radically theocratic autocracy. Ultimately much the same political forces, centered in the military leadership, that had kept Mubarek in power for decades re-gathered their strength to remove Morsi from power. Notably, the results of the election that was intended to give democratic legitimacy to the regime of the “former” head of the military Abdel Fatah al-Sisi were quite different from those that brought Morsi to power—that is, al-Sisi received the sort of electoral support that is produced when only one party has any chance of winning or when only the candidates from one party are actually on the ballot.
In any case, since his overthrow and now Morsi’s overthrow, Mubarek has been left in a sort of legal limbo in which one conviction after another is overturned on appeal and in which charges are whittled away and replaced with lesser charges. As a result, he, along with his sons, are now facing only corruption charges for which the sentence may eventually be time served and some restitution from their massive foreign bank accounts to the Egyptian treasury.
Regardless of what one thinks of Morsi’s ideology, there is no moral logic to Mubarek’s being allowed such a settlement after three decades of political repression and Morsi’s being given so much more severe sentences after mere months in power.
As reported in The Guardian, Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan “criticized the decision to seek the death penalty for Morsi and accused the West of hypocrisy.”
According to the state-run Anatolian news agency, Erdogan stated in a public speech to a large crowd in Istanbul:
“’The popularly elected president of Egypt, chosen with 52% of the vote, has unfortunately been sentenced to death.
“’Egypt is turning back into ancient Egypt. The West, unfortunately, is still turning a blind eye to Sisi’s coup. While they abolished the death penalty in their own countries, they just look on as spectators at this execution in Egypt.’”
Such observations would, of course, carry much greater moral force if Erdogan himself were not regarded as a repressive autocrat. After using considerable force to quash popular protests against his government, Erdogan resorted to the autocratic strategy of blaming the protests on a sinister conspiracy among the enemies not just of his own party and government but of Turkish democracy itself. He then pushed through “reforms” of law enforcement and the judiciary that seemed to make them much less independent, blocked access to social media, imposed severe censorship on the media, and limited civil liberties—all while building a “residence” for himself that seems exceptionally luxurious even by autocratic standards.
So the pundits’ commentary on the relative “stability” of Egypt and Turkey, at least in comparison to some other Middle Eastern states, often ignores that it is clearly very relative and it is clearly coming at a cost. And both assertions remain true even if most citizens of both nations would find such “stability” very preferable to what is occurring in Iraq and Syria.
But it is worth noting that political stability is something that we in the West take entirely for granted and not something that is truly part of any of our political or electoral calculations. When we talk about “attacks on our democratic processes,” we are not necessarily being hyperbolic or frivolous, but we are addressing a level of concerns that, in an international sense, are our luxury to have.
I think that this is largely true even at our political extremes. For instance, I find it hard to believe that most of the Far-Right extremists in the U.S. who accuse President Obama of trying to assume and to assert dictatorial powers actually believe what they are asserting. They may very much believe in a slippery slope that can provide a sudden, steep descent into the specter of dictatorship. But, aside from the lunatic fringe of the lunatic fringe, it seems less likely the case that they believe that dictatorship is imminent and more likely the case that they believe that the specter of dictatorship is politically expedient.