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Media spotlight: Off with their heads! Can we debate capital punishment morally and politically?

The queen’s famous line, “Off with their heads!” in Disney’s 1951 film Alice in Wonderland, bears little resemblance to the actual act of beheading. For one thing, nobody’s head is chopped off in the classic, dreamlike musical.

Though defendants are quite frequently sentenced to death by Egyptian courts, with an estimated 538 sentences issued in 2015 alone, they are more often not carried out. In the last month, however, 22 people have been executed on various charges: 15 for murder, four for carrying out a bombing and three for rape. The executions mark an ominous shift in the frequency with which the state actually implements the death penalty, forcing political observers to once again grapple with the widely accepted form of punishment.

The debate played out in the media along two channels: Those opposed to the executions were quick to ring alarm bells, claiming that they were politically motivated. In response, regime supporters declared them a necessary and preventative measure in the state’s fraught battle against terrorism.

In between the polarization — which is emblematic of the ways in which the political environment has been narrated since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 — has been a faint cry to deliberate over the core issues at the center of capital punishment: the religious reasoning and the leeway allowed, worldwide efforts against implementing the death penalty, the inescapable cruelty of the punishment. and whether capital punishment is an effective deterrent.

While some have in the past called for a moratorium or a temporary suspension of the death penalty out of fear that it would “immortalize the ghosts” of those perceived as criminals by the state, their reach remains limited, giving rise to a conversation that fails to address a pivotal question: How do we challenge the long-held moral stance on capital punishment that sees it as fit retributive justice?

The rhetoric put forth in Egyptian media continues to bolster the political feud between pro and anti-government groups. This has obliterated any real chance of debating the theoretical terms of capital punishment.

The unlikelihood that judicial structures and practices will be revised any time soon further hinders any attempt to prod society’s fixed notions of capital punishment. Such beliefs have been normalized and justified through various legal and religious means and have gained greater legitimacy from the undisputed immanence of the state’s “war on terrorism.”

Successive governments have meted out punishment to their political opponents in Egypt. The Penal Code mandates a punishment of death for several statutes related to murder, as well as offences under the military judiciary act, anti-narcotics law and anti-terrorism law. The death penalty is also handed out to those found guilty of seizing, attacking or entering premises by force that belong to the president, Parliament, Cabinet, ministries, governorates, the Armed Forces, the judiciary, the prosecution, security directorates, police stations, prisons, security bodies, oversight bodies, archaeological sites, places of worship, educational institutions, or hospitals. Equally, anyone that attacks, seizes or forces entry into a public building or facility to commit a “terrorist offense” may be executed by the state. Although Sharia, from which the Constitution states that it derives many of its laws, decrees the death penalty as punishment for murder, and a number of Quranic verses are often cited to illustrate the principle of “an eye for an eye,” the Quran also encourages restitution as an alternative to retribution.

When the Interior Ministry implemented death sentences against 15 people convicted of murder by a military court in Ismailia on December 26, 2017 — the first group to have their sentences actually carried out in this latest spate of executions — controversial pro-state TV anchor Ahmed Moussa referred to the news as a “beginning.” He went on to laud the legal process, which he said was thorough and in the defendants’ favor. “Their case goes back to 2013… all of their rights have been upheld,” he claimed on his show “‘Ala Mas’ouleyety” (My Responsibility).

On the same day, prominent commentator Amr Adib joined him in an exclamation. “It’s not like they were executed in a public square,” he told viewers of the leading nightly show “Kol Youm” (Every Day), broadcast on the privately owned ON TV network. Addressing the Muslim Brotherhood, Adib asked: “What is the fuss about? Are these people yours? Why are you so upset?”

Like Moussa, Adib didn’t give any airspace to the families of those killed — some of whom were not notified of the date of the execution — or attempt to report on the conditions under which they were held or on how or if someone had prepared them for death, as happens in countries that have developed practices around individuals’ last rites. This is symptomatic of the manner in which capital punishment is discussed by media pundits: as a just retribution for a crime, not the killing of another human being.

A letter from Sameh Abdullah Youssef, who was executed on January 2 after being convicted of carrying out a bombing in Kafr al-Sheikh in 2015, was read on Al Jazeera Mubasher — to which access is blocked through local internet service providers. In the letter, Youssef bids farewell to his family, friends and fellow members of the Muslim Brotherhood. He asks to be remembered well and defends his innocence: “I had no knowledge of this incident.”   

For Adib, it seemed unfathomable that one would sympathize with “a terrorist.” His perspective equates any questioning of the implementation of the death penalty with opposing the regime and its “war on terrorism” and has relied heavily on the notion of “taking revenge.” Where security is concerned, the state often adopts a defensive stance: “A vigilant sentinel ready to defend the [ruling] pedestal,” as Frantz Fanon once posited about the disenchantment of the “colonialist bourgeoisie.”

Novelist and diplomat Ezz Eddin Choukry Fishere warned the state not “to obey the appetite for revenge” at the expense of protecting public order and maintaining justice in a June op-ed, which he addressed to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Fishere argued that those who purposefully kill don’t fear punishment, debunking the long-held belief that the death penalty can act as a deterrent against crimes. “Killing them will not offer anyone any protection,” he wrote in the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.

In December, his column resurfaced, when state-aligned host Tamer Amin read parts of it to audiences of Al-Assema TV. Amin appeared bewildered that Fishere, “who dresses like a liberal, not a terrorist,” would question an Egyptian court’s decision.

In 2014, Amnesty International said death sentences “make a mockery” out of Egypt’s criminal justice system, after a Minya court confirmed the death sentence against 37 people. This accusation, and countless more, come as Egypt’s judicial autonomy continues to be called into question.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights issued a statement  on January 11 condemning the executions, citing the military courts’ “lack of basic standards concerning the right to a fair trial” and asserting that “the unprecedented political use of the death penalty will only incur more violence.” The statement was signed by 10 rights organization.  

Celebrated novelist Basma Abdel Aziz commented on the recent executions in an opinion piece published in the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper on January 5, in which she lists the ghastly events that culminate in a state-sanctioned execution. Abdel Aziz recalls how Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death by hanging in December 2006, an execution that drew global criticism, not only for being politically charged, but for eliciting the performative manner in which medieval hangings were once carried out.

In conjuring examples that expose the performative elements of taking someone’s life, which stand among the reasons many societies have abandoned the punishment, Abdel Aziz delivers a contemplation on the brutality of the act and the possibility that the state is using these executions to convey the message: “Don’t dare dissent.”

In her recounting is a refusal to be numbed by the prevalence of violence and, perhaps, an attempt to drown out those who continue to cry, “Off with their heads!”

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Heba El-Sherif