A question of human dignity: Arguments against the death penalty in Egypt

Sunday, February 03, 2013 5:08 PM 
Dr. Vivienne Matthies-Boon is an Assistant Professor in International Relations and International Organisation at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands
Any views expressed in this piece are those of the author and not of Aswat Masriya.

By Dr. Vivienne Matthies-Boon

Egyptian politics is like a rollercoaster ride, with perhaps a few high points but certainly a lot of low points. And, given the (often directionless) speed with which the cart is moving, it is difficult for anyone to keep up with political developments in Egypt – let alone, make sense of them.  Hence, being involved in Egyptian politics can be a dizzying and tiresome experience. What seems true one minute is altered, denied or undone the next.  Of course, unfortunately, to a certain extent Egyptians had to get used to this, as the entire transitional process since January 2011 has been dubious, confusing and muddled. 

We have seen presidential decrees being published only to be replaced or retracted a week later. We have seen people being fired, only to be reinstated, given medals or moved towards similar powerful positions.  We have seen laws being cancelled only to be incorporated into existing laws and, guess what, to be reinstated. We have seen people being tortured and martyred, only to be labelled as thugs and spies for foreign forces. And, we have also seen people calling for human dignity and social justice only to find women and girls being attacked, harassed and raped in the same spaces. Hence, the Egyptian political scene appears double-faced: one minute it shows its beautiful face which calls for human dignity only to rear its ugly head the next moment as people are crushed and women are harassed. Or rather, Egyptian politics currently combines both the worst and the best in mankind, as people struggle and strive for greater freedoms and better social, economic and political rights.  

But this struggle for freedom is sometimes at the expense of not only the freedom but also of the lives of others. Here, we can think of all those people who have died - old, young, male and female – for the sake of the revolution and its demands.  However, here, I am also particularly referring to the death sentences imposed on the 21 of 75 accused in the Port Said massacre. Let me first say that, no one can deny that the Port Said massacre was truly and utterly horrendous, as 74 people (mostly young men) were killed and scores of people were injured.  It was a true disaster, and the relatives of the victims of this massacre are well within their rights to seek a judicial process where justice will be meted out.  Furthermore, there might indeed also be reasons, as many supporters of Ultras Ahlawy have suggested, to believe that the massacre itself was a political ploy – a response to the pro-revolutionary spirit of the Ultras. 

However, at the same time, one cannot help but be a bit disturbed, and disappointed, by the public celebration of death that followed the judges’ verdict, which sent these 21 persons to the gallows. The courtroom was permeated with screams of joy and masses of Ultras supporters gathered in Cairo to celebrate their victory – to celebrate this spectacle of death.  This celebration of the death penalty is surprising since, I believe, it goes directly against the revolutionary call for social justice and human dignity where each life is finally supposed to count.  

The 2011 revolution was a reaction against the notion that some lives counted more than others – that people’s lives can be dispensed with, crushed and broken and are at the behest of the powerful elite of the country.  In this sense, the revolution stood for and demanded human dignity and social justice.  Yet, this revolutionary demand for social justice and human dignity does not sit easily with the celebration of the death penalty. For this reason, in what follows I will outline the specific arguments against the death penalty in Egypt.

Firstly, there is a principled argument to be made against the death penalty: it breaches a fundamental aspect of human dignity, namely the right to life.  This is a right that all people have by the mere fact of being a human being, hence including those who have committed horrendous crimes.  Of course, this does not mean that those who have committed grave offenses should walk free or get lenient sentences. Rather, they should be tried and held accountable for their actions.  Yet, the death penalty should not be amongst the range of available options for punishment if we want to avoid living in a society where the logic of revenge (rather than justice) rules.  Thus, those convicted of severe offenses should not receive the death penalty but, for example, long or even lifelong prison sentences. This principled argument against the death penalty is important if we want to avoid living in a brutalised society where the rule “an eye for an eye” counts.  After all, as Mahatma Ghandi pointed out: “an eye for an eye and the world goes blind”.  Hence, in order to break out of the cycle of revenge, we need to recognise that the death penalty is based on a logical fallacy.  The death penalty is most commonly reserved for heinous crimes such as murder, which is (rightly so) believed to be wrong.  Yet, in order to compensate or make for this crime, we kill another person. This is a classical logical fallacy since two wrongs cannot make a right.

But also, there are practical arguments to be made against the death penalty.  Firstly, once a person is executed there is no way this can be undone.  Whilst obvious, this is an important point because no judicial system is flawless and mistakes are made which results in wrongful convictions – and thus executions of innocent people.  As a spokesperson for Amnesty International explained, with the development of DNA research, old cases are now being reinvestigated in the United States of America where on a number of occasions it has emerged that the wrong person has indeed been sent to the gallows. Yet, as the execution has already taken place there is nothing that can be done.  We cannot bring these people back to life.  Hence, the possibility of potentially sending innocent people to their death – and not being able to rectify this – should weigh heavily on our shoulders.  And this objection should certainly count in Egypt, where the judicial system is heavily politicised and only semi-independent from the executive and legislative branches.  

Secondly, when the case itself is highly politicised – and is thus strategically important to a government or a regime – the chances of sending innocent people to their deaths increases.  My worry is that the Port Said case was certainly highly politicised, with the Ultras Ahlawy threatening to use violence if the trial‘s outcome was not to their satisfaction. Their instance is understandable, especially given how many corrupt ministers, police officers and other high level individuals have been acquitted in other cases.  Yet, the problem is that one wonders to what extent this actually delivered the wider demands the Ultras strove for – namely the holding accountable of high-level security officers and politicians, as well as a transparency of the facts.  Nothing of the kind has happened.  The evidence has not been made public, nor are we any wiser of what exactly happened on the day of the massacre. Instead, what we see is a line-up of people who will be punished and sent to their deaths, but the public does not really know the exact reasons as to why.

And it is here, that we should be especially aware of the dubious nature of the mass arrests in Port Said following the massacre. These arrests took place in a random, sweeping and inefficient manner.  As Ziad Akl explains, “the majority of those accused could not even be related to what happened, they were simply arrested because a line-up of perpetrators had to be engineered quickly in response to political pressure. When you get to the bottom of what happened in Port Said during the few days after the massacre you would understand that this trial is a charade designed by the army and implemented by state institutions to find scapegoats while the guilty get decorated”[i].  Hence, it is crucial that an independent, thorough and detailed investigation into the exact nature of the arrests and the involvement of each arrested individual is conducted.  And even then, we cannot rule out the fact that we might end up sending innocent people to their deaths.  And that is the terrible thing with the death penalty, namely that it is an ultimate punishment with no respite.

Furthermore, one should also raise questions about the politicized nature of the trial’s verdicts due to the timing of the verdict.  The verdict is being staged in two rounds.  In the first round, on the 26th of January, 21 people were convicted.  The other verdict will take place in March.  The verdict takes place in two stages as the public prosecutor insisted the investigations are not over.  But if the investigations are not over, then one cannot help but wonder why 21 people were sentenced now.  This raises a serious suspicion that these verdicts were purposively used as a political ploy.  Namely, that the first round of verdicts was planned on the day following the revolution’s second anniversary in order to appease an increasingly frustrated and riotous opposition, which has had enough of President Mohamed Mursi’s authoritarian measures.  But of course, if this is so, the tactic largely backfired since the people in Port Said revolted – resulting in over 40 deaths and hundreds of people injured – whilst protests and clashes across the country continue to this day. 

Still, the fact remains that what we see are mostly lower ranking officers or other people sentenced, rather than the higher-class officers and politicians being held accountable and transparency being achieved.  Here, we come up against my third objection to the death penalty – namely that the verdict of the death penalty often disproportionally affects the lower socio-economic class and marginalized minorities. This we see across the world.  It is largely a result of marginalized people not being able to defend themselves properly from unfair judicial processes.  For instance, a fair legal process requires the defendant to be able to choose their own lawyer.  Often, the less educated lower-class are not made aware of this right – and even if they are, due to a lack of economic means, they often simply cannot afford a good lawyer.  Moreover, a fair process requires an absence of manipulation and other inhumane practices such as torture and mental abuse.  Yet, lower class people are often less capable of protecting themselves from these practices due to the lack of socio-economic means and social standing.  Additionally, judges and juries often hold discriminatory and racist attitudes towards marginalized people from a lower socio-economic background or different ethnic community.  Marginalized people are frequently regarded as a burden to society and thus can be more easily disposed of, using the death penalty. It is precisely because the lower social class often find themselves embroiled in a web of unfair judicial processes, that I would argue Egyptian revolutionaries should think twice before celebrating the death penalty.  For, it directly goes against the revolutionary chant of social justice and human dignity.

Of course, there are those who will argue that the death penalty is for the greater good and works as a deterrent. This means that since people know they could receive the death penalty they will not commit heinous crimes. Yet, the problem with this argument is that this has neither been proven nor disproven.  Studies on this issue have been ambiguous to say the least, and so long as they are ambiguous, it is best to disregard this argument. 

Furthermore, with regards to the Egyptian scenario, it is very doubtful that these particular death penalties will deter corrupt high-ranking officials from pursuing their unjust, criminal and corrupt causes.  If anything, it shows that a ‘few rotten apples’ and scapegoats can pay the price and absorb public anger, whilst the political elite itself walks away free.  In other words, it has done nothing to address the greater processes of injustice, namely police brutality, high level corruption and an unfair distribution of socio-economic resources.  Instead, it appears that “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” (The more it changes, the more it's the same thing).

But it will also be interesting to see how this case and other cases develop under Mursi’s government. Egypt has always been on the list of countries still carrying out the death penalty, despite the general tendency towards the abolition of the death penalty across the world.  However, thankfully, it has never reached the top 5 of the list of executors, which has been firmly dominated by the United States of America, China, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia who carry out most executions.  In the past, Egypt has sentenced more people to death than it actually executed.  Unfortunately, the details for the year 2012 are not yet available but will be published by Amnesty International in April 2013. However, when we look at Egypt’s death penalty figures for 2011[ii], we see that 123 people have been sentenced to death – 17 of which were trialled by the dubious military trials – and only 1 person has been executed (namely the highly politicised case of Mohamed Ahmed Hussein who killed 7 Copts[iii]).  Equally, in 2010, there were 185 death penalty verdicts and 4 have been executed – 3 men and 1 woman.  Whilst, each death is one too many, these numbers show that so far Egypt has a remarkably different pattern of executions than say Saudi Arabia and Iran – who execute people on mass scale and even make them into public events.  In Egypt, there has thus been a tendency not to necessarily carry out the death sentences imposed.  It will be interesting to see whether this tendency, with the rise of an Islamist government and Salafi (ultraconservative) political forces, will remain the same – or whether we will also start to see mass executions in Egypt.  I hope not.

Yet, whilst the tendency towards the lack of implementation of the death penalty in Egypt might be a good thing, we have to realise that this (as Amnesty International also rightly insists) itself also constitutes a form of mental torture – as people spend years and decades knowing they can be killed by the authorities at any random moment.  They are thus completely at the behest of the arbitrary Egyptian judicial and political system, which rules over their life and death.  The only way to avoid this is to abolish the death penalty all together.

Yet, unfortunately, the abolition of the death penalty seems a long way off.  Within Egypt, there seems to be a lot of support for the death penalty not only amongst the people but also amongst the political parties.  When Amnesty International urged 54 Egyptian political parties to sign a manifesto of human rights prior to the parliamentary elections, almost all the political parties withheld from agreeing to the abolition of the death penalty[iv].  Even a fairly progressive party such as the Egyptian Social Democratic Party was not willing to support the abolition of the death penalty.  The Popular Socialist Alliance did support abolition, but warned that it was too premature to expect this abolition, due to the support it carries amongst the Egyptian population.  Interestingly, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi Nour party were not only rejecting the abolition of the death penalty but also the development of women’s rights.  With this political scene, it is indeed doubtful whether the death penalty will be abolished within Egypt in due course.  Especially also since many governments abolish the death penalty both under internal and external pressure.  This external pressure is also lacking in Egypt, since one of the main external “partners” to the Egyptian political scene – the United States of America – is itself a top executer.  And with regards to the European Union?  Well, they do largely condemn the death penalty, but are willing to sidestep this thorny issue in light of a greater good: neoliberal economic cooperation.

So, if we want to abolish the death penalty, we must start ourselves.  As a spokesperson for Amnesty International argued, we must attain a three-tiered approach that targets education, broadens civil society’s capacity in this regard and targets political parties.  This means we should set up educational programmes, which make young people aware of the principled and practical objections to the death penalty.  Through a practical curriculum that engages them in real life cases, we should open up the discussion amongst the younger generation and slowly change the societal perception towards the death penalty.  In this sense, the NGOs and civil society groups are very important in carrying this baton forward.  But also, ordinary Egyptians should write to the political parties as well as international organisations and governments demanding the abolition of the death penalty.  It will not be an easy road – as nothing ever is. It will also be a long road, but it will be a road worth travelling if we want to come a step closer to the revolutionary demand of human dignity.


[i] http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/01/26/the-ultras-the-trial-and-violence/

[ii] http://www.amnesty.org/en/death-penalty

[iii] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12201318

[iv] http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/egypt-parties-pledge-end-state-emergency-many-stop-short-committing-women-s-rights-2012-01-24

[1] This article has benefitted from an extensive dialogue with Amnesty International Netherlands, and I am grateful for their input. Needless to say, , Amnesty International is in no way responsible for the content of this article, since the views expressed are mine alone.

[1] http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/01/26/the-ultras-the-trial-and-violence/

[1] http://www.amnesty.org/en/death-penalty

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12201318

[1] http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/egypt-parties-pledge-end-state-emergency-many-stop-short-committing-women-s-rights-2012-01-24

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