Egypt’s Sisi regime sentences SFS professor to death, final verdict pending

Dr. Emad El-Din Shahin didn’t know he had been sentenced in absentia to death by the Egyptian government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi until a friend called him from London last month to express his condolences.

Shahin, a visiting professor in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, was charged in Dec. 2013 as Defendant 33 in a criminal case known as the “Grand Espionage.” At the time, Shahin taught public policy at The American University in Cairo, where he received both his B.A. and M.A in the early 1980s. According to Shahin’s Facebook page, the case accused Shahin of espionage against the Egyptian government. It also alleged that he had been copied on email correspondences between members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political faction that took power in a June 2012 democratic election following the resignation of Egypt’s long-serving former president, Hosni Mubarak, in 2011.

The Grand Espionage trial also charged and sentenced over 100 members of the Muslim Brotherhood along with former president Mohamed Morsi, who was removed in a military coup after barely a year into his term. He was replaced by Sisi, Egypt’s former Minister of Defense, who was sworn into office on June 8, 2014.

The trial has been widely condemned. Nonprofit human rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called the proceedings a “sham” rife with “bias and an absence of conclusive evidence.” Shahin denies the charges against him, which he called deliberately vague and baseless, and stressed his commitment to the democratic ideals of the Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt’s Tahrir Square that helped oust Mubarak. He alleged that his vocal criticism of the Sisi government made him a target of the regime’s efforts to quash dissent.

Although he acknowledged that his work could have caused him to be copied on correspondences critical of the government, he noted that volatile political dynamics under Sisi had bred a climate of crisis. “Political scientists … get numerous requests for political consultation from people and groups of many different ideologies, especially about crises,” he said in an interview with Vox. “Usually, the communication takes place by email or phone conversations. Even if there was a ‘cc’ of a memo or something, it was trying to find a solution for a political crisis. How can that amount to a death sentence?”

Shahin, also editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics, a member of the academic advisory board of Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding, and once-faculty member of Harvard, Columbia, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, fled the country in Jan. 2014, less than two weeks after learning of the Grand Espionage charges. He now resides in the D.C. metro area.

In a statement issued on his website on May 16, the day the death sentence was announced, Shahin called the ruling a “travesty of justice” characteristic of Sisi’s increasingly autocratic control of the Egyptian legal system. Despite the initial charges, the sentence came as a shock. “I was not expecting this,” he said. “I don’t have a lawyer. I was never subpoenaed, I was never interrogated. I was tried in absentia. I didn’t have any defense.”

Shahin’s death sentence has aroused significant support from human rights advocates and fellow scholars. Alongside 36 scholars from other global universities and think tanks, seven Georgetown professors signed a letter in support of Shahin published by Jadaliyya, a Middle East ezine, on May 26. One signatory, John L. Esposito, a Georgetown professor of Islamic Studies and founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, called Shahin “another victim of a military-backed/run ‘democracy’” in a statement published on Shahin’s personal website.

Students and faculty of The American University in Cairo and the University of Notre Dame as well as scholars of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Middle East Studies Association of North America, and Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies have also expressed their solidarity.

Shahin’s sentence will stand unless it is commuted by Egypt’s highest religious figure, the Grand Mufti, who announced on Tuesday he would hand down his final verdict pending further deliberation.

But for Shahin, whether or not the Mufti commutes his sentence is “irrelevant.” He said the disregard for due process and the rule of law in the Grand Espionage case illustrates the “deplorable situation [that] the Egyptian judicial system has reached.” In addition to a “highly politicized and excessive” use of the courts as a “tool…for Sisi’s regime against any voice of dissent,” Shahin suspects the sentences are being used as a form of political insurance to make the increasingly autocratic Sisi regime more palatable to international audiences. Shahin argues that commuting death sentences like his might become a ploy to relieve pressure on the regime and deflect criticisms that it has violated both Egyptian and international law.

Shahin’s scholarly work has helped document the regime’s grim human rights record.

“Two years after Sisi staged a coup and crushed initial hopes of democracy, [his regime has] killed more than 3000 Egyptians, injured more than 16,000, detained over 40,000, referred 4,000 civilians to military tribunals, [and] killed 20 students on campuses in addition to 300 young students who have been killed during protests outside campus. Two hundred and seventy-one Egyptians died incommunicado while in detention. This is the inventory of that regime,” he said.

Shahin ties his academic work to the charges and sentence pronounced against him. “This is why the regime considered me a nuisance,” he said. “Because I objected, I opposed. Because I was critically outspoken. I exposed Sisi’s atrocities, and I’ve written about this in the Western media.”

Shahin said that Sisi’s behavior has also “managed to divide and polarize Egyptian society,” already fractious and factionalized following the Arab Spring and the parade of leaders that followed Mubarak’s fall. “When [Sisi] claims to be eradicating terrorists and violence, he’s actually radicalizing Egypt, and he’s pushing Egypt toward further violence to meet this state violence,” Shahin said. “This has created deep divisions in the social fabric of society and also has implicated large areas of society into this bloodshed. Sisi managed to entrap them into the cycle of bloodshed, the cycle of violence. This is not the direction that we want. He has become part of the problem and he has to be stopped.”

Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, seems to agree. In a blog post for dated June 1, Cook wrote that “Sisi rules with a heavy emphasis on coercion, patronage, and with little in the way of an authentic or positive vision of Egypt’s future with which most Egyptians can agree.”

For Shahin, the solution is simple. “Uphold the minimum standards of democracy, rule of law, and human rights in Egypt. The Egyptian military is an important institution, but I am a firm believer in civilian oversight. I always advocated for peaceful means of change. Always.”

And despite his authoritarian measures, Shahin argued that Sisi’s control of the legal system evinces the regime’s precariousness. “He wants to show his supporters that he’s in control. That’s a reflection of insecurity,” Shahin said, “because he knows that he is part of the problem.”

Cook’s June 1 post adds that squabbles for authority among different branches of the Egyptian government including the judiciary, the Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of the Interior “contribute to instability, raising questions about the durability of the Egyptian political system.”

According to Shahin, the Western news media has failed to adequately penetrate the shield of advocacy groups, lobbyists, and PR firms hired by the regime that “to a large extent have been doing a great job in trying to promote Sisi as the only option for Egypt and to give the image that the West needs to help him economically.” Although “certain human rights organizations, like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have been very outspoken,” he maintains that “there’s not enough exposure of his mass violations of human rights, his use of rape, for example, against female student protesters.”

Shahin is also critical of many Western policymakers’ hesitancy to advocate change. “Unfortunately there are so many policymaking circles that want to convince themselves that there is no civilian alternative to Sisi, that this regime is here to stay and it’s not going away for a long time, and that all Egypt needs is some kind of economic support and the problems will go away,” he said. “This is wrong.”

He further cautioned Western leaders against rewarding the regime’s bad behavior, even unwittingly. “Do not appease them,” he said. “Put some pressure that will give incentives to the military to reform itself. But if you keep appeasing them, you keep aiding them, you keep abetting them, they will see this as a sign of complicity and that the West condones what they have been doing.”

Shahin is also adamant that merely “expressing concern,” as a U.S. State Department spokesperson did after the Grand Espionage sentence was handed down, is insufficient. “That concern has to be translated into concrete policies. There has to be a realization that the region is taking a really sharp and alarming downturn. And that has to be addressed immediately, and not by aiding and helping and supporting the people who are pushing for further violations like Sisi.”

But according to the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank based in Washington, D.C., the U.S. House Appropriations Committee released a foreign aid bill this week that frees up nearly $1.3 billion in foreign aid to Egypt without human rights restrictions. Despite a May 12 memo from the State Department highlighting Egypt’s “pervasive lack of respect for international due process standards and other fair trial safeguards,” the bill appears to enjoy bipartisan support.

Shahin aims to do his part. “My role as a scholar is to remain a balanced voice. To write about these things. To try to promote certain values like democracy, human rights, and the rule of law,” he said.

Nevertheless, he aims to one day return to a different Egypt. “I know it’s a long way, it’s an uphill struggle, but one should not lose hope for national reconciliation. One day I will go back to Egypt after this regime is gone. I wish I were inside, but I know if I were inside where I would be.”

Reflecting on his experience has left Shahin shaken but resolute. “Since I was young, I wanted to study and teach political science. I wanted to be a teacher because I believe in change. When you promote change or try to advocate change you have to expect some kind of resistance, and you have to expect that you will pay a heavy price,” he said. “This situation has put a tremendous weight on my career, on my family. But I am not embittered.”

Shahin will teach “The Future of Islam and Politics in the Middle East” and “State, Society and Power Structures in Egypt” at Georgetown during the fall 2015 semester.


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