In March 2014, a court in the Egyptian province of Minya sentenced 529 people to death over the killing of a single police officer. In two sessions over three days, not a single argument from a defence lawyer was heard.
Those who note that 492 of those 529 death sentences were later rescinded – with most of those charged instead sentenced to life in prison – miss the point of the exercise, which was repeated recently when a court weighed the fate of another 739 people linked to anti-coup protests in 2013, sentencing 75 of them to death.
A great deal has been written about the movement across the Arab world in 2011 known as “the Arab Spring”: whether it was an authentic expression of popular grievances; whether it has given way to an “Islamist winter”; and so on. But what cannot be disputed is that for a time the suffocating control of the state in every area of its citizens’ lives in such countries as Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen was disrupted, and new conversations began.
In Egypt, that disruption triggered a backlash in which the security state sought to re-assert its prerogatives, with the funding and support of the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The state sought to control the conversation around its actions by targeting the media (and in particular the television network al-Jazeera, whose Australian reporter Peter Greste was one of several journalists incarcerated) and sponsoring a bizarre ad campaign discouraging Egyptians from discussing domestic issues with foreigners.