Mursi's death penalty a blow to democracy

On Tuesday, an Egyptian court upheld the death penalty for Mohamed Mursi, Egypt's first democratically elected president.

Mursi was first sentenced to death last month, along with more than 100 co-defendants, for taking part in an alleged prison break.

It was the latest in a series of sham trials and mass death sentences decreed by the judiciary since the Egyptian military ousted Mursi in a coup in July 2013.

If the former president is ultimately hanged, it would be a grave miscarriage of justice that would make Mursi - the first leader of the Muslim Brotherhood to assume the presidency of an Arab country - a martyr for millions throughout the Muslim world.

Beyond Mursi's fate, the mass death sentences - part of Egypt's wider crackdown on the Brotherhood and other opponents of the military regime - send a dangerous signal to Islamists throughout the region: The only way to achieve political power is through violence.

The Brotherhood's experience over the years in Egypt shows that authoritarian and secular forces, which often fare poorly at the ballot box, will mobilise to undermine the Islamists before they have had a chance to rule. Egypt cannot be a viable, pluralistic democracy without the Brotherhood's participation.

Unfortunately, the army's coup against Mursi - and the Brotherhood's failure at governing - lent ammunition to pundits in the West who perpetuate the centuries-old lazy, and racist, trope that Islam is incompatible with democracy and modernity.

When it deposed Mursi in 2013, the military insisted it was acting on the will of the Egyptian people, who had grown disenchanted with his clumsy rule and disastrous economic policies.

But the army didn't stop there: It arrested Mursi along with thousands of other Brotherhood leaders and activists, shut down media outlets sympathetic to the Islamists and banned the Brotherhood from Egyptian political life entirely.

Then, in August 2013, the army and security forces opened fire on thousands of Mursi's supporters who were engaged in a peaceful sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, killing at least 1,000 people. Human Rights Watch called the massacre "one of the world's largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history".

The repression has been more intense than that of former president Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled by a popular uprising in January 2011.

Many of Egypt's secular and liberal activists initially stood by as the military moved to dismantle the Brotherhood, and some were actively encouraging the crackdown. Predictably, after targeting the Islamists, the military expanded its repression against secularists and anyone else who criticised its actions.

Mr Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was Mursi's defence minister and the coup's main instigator, is now President. He has restored many elements of military rule and returned officials from Mubarak's former regime to power. Mr Sisi is the latest in a line of military strongmen to rule Egypt, since the charismatic Gamal Adel Nasser overthrew the British-backed monarchy in 1952.

Mr Sisi's crackdown is reminiscent of Mr Nasser's suppression of the Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s, which helped lay the ideological foundations for the emergence of violent Islamic movements in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. This pattern of repression that leads to radicalisation is being repeated today.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest and most influential Islamist movement in the Arab and Muslim worlds; it has inspired branches and affiliates throughout the Middle East. In fits and starts over several decades, Islamist parties across the region renounced violence and committed to participating in electoral politics.

But now Islamists view the Egyptian military's coup and subsequent crackdown as a signal that election results will not be respected.

The process can spiral out of control: In 1992, the Islamic Salvation Front was on the verge of winning parliamentary elections in Algeria when the military intervened and cancelled the results. That coup set off an eight-year civil war that killed more than 100,000 people.

And that is the danger many in the Arab world and in the West are failing to grasp: While authoritarian rule appears to provide stability over the short term, it breeds discontent and affirms the idea that violence is an acceptable - and indeed the only - way to be heard.

Today, the Egyptian military can continue its crackdown with impunity because the United States and other Western powers made clear that they favour stability over democracy. Much of the West accepted the coup and has remained largely silent about the sham trials and mass death sentences being handed down by the Egyptian judiciary.

The United States provides Egypt with US$1.3 billion (S$1.75 billion) in military aid each year, but it has been reluctant to use that aid as leverage against the Egyptian regime.

There is another danger of an authoritarian government demonising all Islamists as terrorists who must be suppressed: It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mr Sisi's actions prove to those who advocate violence that it is the only path. Ultimately, Islamists will conclude that the only way to protect themselves and achieve power is by taking up arms.

Today, the struggle over Islamism is between two paths: the violence advocated by militant groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or the commitment to building a social base and participating in electoral politics, as Islamist groups in Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt have done.

We must not allow authoritarian regimes such as Mr Sisi's to malign that history of peaceful political engagement, or to breed new resentments with its latest cycle of repression.

The writer is a journalism professor at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday.

This article was first published on June 18, 2015.
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