Death Sentences Add Egypt Judges to Militants’ Target List

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Former Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi
Former Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi during a court hearing in Cairo. Photographer: Ahmed Omar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In court, there’s the gavel. Outside, there’s the gun. In Egypt, the two are increasingly crossing paths.

Weeks of low-level attacks on Egyptian jurists turned deadly last weekend with the killing of three judges hours after a court handed down a death sentence against ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi and 100 of his backers. A group that has pledged allegiance to Islamic State in Sinai has urged followers to step up attacks against judges, according to a recording attributed to its leader.

Judge Mohamed Yusri summed up the new reality with a post on Facebook with a picture of himself toting a semi-automatic weapon. “I swear by my religion to erase from the records the name of whoever dares to come near me, even in jest,” the caption read. The photo, posted shortly after the judges were shot dead and reported by the Cairo-based El-Watan daily, has since been taken down.

Since the army-led ouster of Mursi in 2013, judges have sentenced hundreds of his followers to death as authorities sought to crush political Islam. The judiciary’s perceived role in the crackdown has added the judges to the target list of militants, who had focused their attacks on security forces. Government and judicial officials say court rulings are not politically motivated.

Blurred Lines

“The different branches of the state are becoming the same thing in the eyes of their opponents,” said Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at the Cairo-based Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Militants “are no longer distinguishing between police officers, army officers, regular soldiers and judges,” he said.

The latest sentences drew international condemnation from human rights groups. Along with Mursi, they included members of the Gaza Strip’s Hamas group, who were either dead or in Israeli prisons at the time of the 2011 prison break for which they were charged and convicted. The rulings must be reviewed by Egypt’s top religious officials and are subject to appeal.

At the same time, some analysts say the Muslim Brotherhood is using the death penalties to build up sympathy and prevent the regime from broadening its support base.

The Brotherhood “is an integral part of the propaganda manufactured around these executions,” said Mokhtar Awad, an analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington. It “needs this at any cost to push forward the narrative that Islamists must exact retribution,” he said.

In Vain

Attacks quickly followed the rulings on Saturday. The judges were gunned down within hours in the restive Sinai peninsula and bombs exploded outside two courthouses.

The surge in violence in the past two years hasn’t rattled investors, with the biggest attacks confined to northern Sinai. The benchmark EGX 30 Index for stocks has risen almost 80 percent since Mursi’s ouster.

Right or wrong, Egypt’s judges, who repeatedly clashed with Islamists under Mursi, see themselves as part of an existential battle.

“Every single judge is targeted,” said Moataz Khafagy, who presided over a court that sentenced to death 21 Islamists, including the group’s top leader, Mohamed Badie, and was the subject of an attempted car bombing earlier this month.

“The terrorists think they can intimidate us, but they’re mistaken,” he said by phone. “Like other terrorist operations in history, this will end in vain.” Yusri, the judge who posted his picture with a gun on Facebook, didn’t answer calls seeking comment.

Police State

Islamists and other critics of El-Sisi, who won last year’s presidential election, accuse the government of stifling dissent to restore the police state that prevailed under Hosni Mubarak, who led Egypt for three decades until he was toppled in a popular uprising in 2011.

Leading figures from that era who were given prison sentences have been granted retrials and acquitted.

The perception of judicial bias got another boost Wednesday after El-Sisi swore in Ahmed El-Zind, a staunch opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood, as justice minister. Militants may find him a fierce opponent.

Following the killing of the three judges, he said the attacks won’t stop the judiciary from “working day and night to purify Egypt,” according to the state-run Middle East News Agency.

Volcano

“Every drop of blood shed by any of the martyrs of the nation will be a volcano burning the enemies of Egypt,” he said.

El-Zind was himself a target of violence. A bomb was found outside his house in January 2014, state-run Ahram Online reported. In 2012, a mob hurled rocks at him as he left the Judges Club headquarters in Cairo.

While criticism of the judiciary has come so far primarily from the intelligentsia, “if this spreads to a significant portion of public opinion, it might shake the confidence people have in the state and cause serious problems for the regime,” Ahmed Youssef, a Cairo University political science professor, said by phone.

“The faith in the state and its institutions is barely held together. It can’t withstand such hits,” he said.

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