Editorial Board

Egyptian Democracy's Death Sentence

If the U.S. supports the spread of democracy and individual rights in the Middle East, then it cannot provide the means to suppress them.
Egyptians react to the death sentence of a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Photographer: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

An Egyptian court today sentenced 683 people to death in a trial that lasted about five minutes. This was both a travesty of justice and an embarrassment for the U.S., which just last week released some of the military aid it froze last year to protest Egypt's human-rights abuses.

For those who may have been distracted by other issues lately: About 1,150 people died in the military coup that deposed the country's first democratically chosen president last July. Since then, as many as 19,000 protesters have been arrested or have disappeared at the hands of security forces.

No one has been charged in connection with those killings. Egypt's courts did, however, sentence 529 people to death last month in connection with the death of a policeman. (That trial lasted about four hours, or 27 seconds per death sentence.) Meanwhile, a new draft anti-terrorism law is so vague and broad that the crackdown is likely to become even more bloody.

Still, a reasonable argument can be made for the U.S.'s support. The U.S. is obviously powerless to influence the behavior of the current regime, whose repression continues regardless of whether the U.S. withholds or provides military aid. Better, then, to resume business as usual with Egypt. Especially since the regime's current leader, General Abdel-Fattah al-Seesi, is likely to be elected president next month and has made fighting terrorism a priority. It is Realpolitik 101.

The only flaws in this argument are its assumption and its premise. The first is that Egypt can win its scorched-earth campaign against Islamist terrorism and return the country to a stable, albeit authoritarian, pre-Arab Spring status quo. Delivering 10 Apache attack helicopters and $650 million in other military aid might accelerate that process; democracy and the restoration of civil rights could follow once stability is restored.

This is implausible. Egypt's government says about 500 people have been killed in terrorist attacks since the coup, mainly security personnel. That violence flared in response to draconian policies that offered Islamists no peaceful avenue. Previous attempts to crush the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, notably under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, failed miserably. Today's death sentence against the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, which claims membership of up to a quarter of Egypt's population, will further aid recruitment for radical Islamist groups that preach violence.

The larger flaw in the realpolitik argument is the notion that, in the absence of any influence, the U.S. should feel free to bend its principles. In fact, the opposite is true: Making an exception to a principle only makes sense if doing so provides a tangible and valuable benefit. That's not the case here.

Al-Seesi's Egypt is measurably more bloody and repressive than either the Muslim Brotherhood government it replaced or any of Egypt's previous dictatorships. It's not enough for the U.S. to merely condemn the mass trials. If the U.S. truly supports the spread of democracy and individual rights in the Middle East, as it claims, then it cannot provide the means to suppress them.