Saturday’s Egyptian court ruling declaring Hamas a “terrorist” organisation should be situated within the larger context of post-2011 Egyptian politics, and, in particular, the politicisation of Egypt’s judiciary.
Egypt’s “deep state” – which includes the army, police, and, importantly, the judiciary – fought in 2012 and 2013 to reverse democratic gains made after President Hosni Mubarak was ousted and Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, won five straight elections (municipal, presidential and referendums). Faced with the realisation that the Brotherhood was unlikely to be defeated at the polls, the “deep state” – sparked by the judiciary – pushed back. The judiciary disbanded Egypt’s first-ever democratically elected parliament, disbanded Egypt’s first constitutional assembly, blocked an initial attempt to sack the Mubarak-era prosecutor general, and moved to end elected President Mohamed Morsi’s term early.
Since the Brotherhood was successfully ousted in a July 3, 2013 military coup, Egypt’s judiciary has, at nearly every step, helped Egypt’s ruling military government in its campaign to eliminate the Brotherhood and all other forms of serious political competition. Egyptian courts have upheld decisions to ban the Brotherhood from politics, seize the group’s assets, declare it a terrorist organisation, and shut down charitable organisations suspected of being operated by the Brotherhood.
Also, in 2014, Egypt’s judiciary sentenced more than 1,200 Brotherhood members and supporters to death in mass trials over the deaths of two police officers. The trials prevented defence teams from presenting evidence, did not allow for defence testimony, and were over in a matter of hours. Another mass death sentence, for 183 people, was issued in December 2014 and upheld by an Egyptian court in February 2015.
The absurdity of the mass death sentences has cast grave doubt over the extent to which Egypt’s judiciary is to be taken seriously, let alone considered independent. As Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Leah Whitson noted in December 2014: “Mass death sentences are fast losing Egypt’s judiciary whatever reputation for independence it once had.”
The judiciary has also helped with a wider crackdown on liberal politicians and journalists considered threats to Egypt’s ruling regime. In 2014, Egypt’s judiciary sentenced Al Jazeera journalists to prison after a trial that HRW said presented “zero evidence of wrongdoing”. The judiciary has also upheld prison sentences and decisions to ban liberal groups and activists.
Meanwhile, Egyptian judges have been easy on members of Egypt’s deep state. They have acquitted Mubarak of murder and corruption charges; key Mubarak-era ministers of corruption charges; and police officers accused of killing protesters. In 2014, a court also annulled a sentence given to an officer convicted of killing 37 prisoners by suffocation.
Crucial to the Egyptian regime’s post-coup efforts have been its attempts to define all Islamists – al-Qaeda, ISIL, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and all others – as both existential threats to Egypt and essentially the same. By both playing up fears over the destruction of Egypt and proposing an essential link between all Islamists, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government has been able, in one fell swoop, to justify mass repression and eliminationism.
Hamas, it appears, has been caught in Egypt’s “war on terror” crosshair. Although no credible evidence exists of Hamas’ involvement in crimes inside Egypt – indeed, an ISIL-affiliate has regularly claimed responsibility for the Sinai Peninsula violence Hamas is blamed for – it is necessary for Egypt’s military to implicate Hamas, a group seen as an ally of the Brotherhood. For Egyptian authorities, Hamas’ alleged terrorism inside Egypt serves to reinforce the Brotherhood’s assumed diabolical nature. Significantly, Morsi, who hails from the Brotherhood, is on trial for spying on Egypt for Hamas and coordinating and carrying out a mass prison break with Hamas.
Casting a wide terrorism net has served useful purposes for Egypt’s government. Charges of terrorism have produced quick convictions and helped to eliminate thorns in the side of the Egyptian government. Egypt’s 2014 anti-terrorism law declares that any organisation that “disrupts public order”, “harms national unity”, or which seeks to “stop a specific law or overturn a court verdict” can be declared “terrorist”. Just last week, the terrorism net was cast even wider when Sisi passed a new anti-terrorism law.
Saturday’s declaration of Hamas as a “terrorist” organisation is consistent with Egypt’s post-coup policy. The declaration provides Egypt’s government further ammunition to crackdown on opposition, particularly the Brotherhood. Egyptian authorities will likely frame Saturday’s decision as further proof of the Brotherhood’s links to international terrorism and violence in Sinai. The decision, which will undoubtedly be welcomed by Israel, will further isolate both the Brotherhood and Hamas.
But, given Hamas’ position as governor of Gaza, the move also lessons the likelihood that the Egyptian government will continue to serve as a peace broker in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Thus, Saturday’s move carries broader, region-wide implications.