Behind bars in a Cairo courthouse on 16 May sat a man who two years earlier had been at the helm of a new Egypt as its first democratically elected leader. But when the judge handed Mohamed Mursi a death sentence for his involvement in a mass prison break in 2011, it reaffirmed the drastic changes that have swept across the country in recent years.

The verdict was delivered just weeks ahead of the 30 June anniversary of the former president’s dramatic removal from power, and risks reigniting unrest at a crucial time for the North African country.

In the hope of attracting billions of dollars of investment, President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has promised the international community a stable business environment, following the Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) held in Sharm el-Sheikh in March this year. Any return to the protests and street battles of 2011-13 would undo all the progress made of late.

Brotherhood treatment

The court decision is reminiscent of the Muslim Brotherhood’s treatment under previous presidents and stands in stark contrast to the punishment given to Hosni Mubarak, who was the same month sentenced to three years in jail with a likely release following four years of detention.

The Brotherhood has dismissed the verdict and called on the Egyptian people “to reclaim the democracy they fought so hard for”. In a series of statements released by several prominent members of Egypt’s Islamist community, there have been warnings of a backlash of violence and opposition.

The timing and manner in which the sentence was handed to Mursi may prove to be a tactless move by the judiciary and will undermine efforts by the authorities for any sort of reconciliation process with the opposition.

Such is the Cairo-centric nature of Egypt’s institutions that the sentence was not disputed and local media coverage has hailed it as an end to the Brotherhood. Others have said there is the risk it will create an icon out of Mursi, which could haunt the current leadership as many rural areas of the country remain strongholds of the group.

We were planning on taking to the streets on 30 June, but now we will [do so] with more fire in our bellies

Member of the Muslim Brotherhood

While 30 June will be celebrated by most in Egypt, there is still a significant portion of society that will be looking to use the date to highlight the government’s political oppression. At the centre of recent discontent is the manner in which the judiciary has been handing out death sentences. Espionage, national security and claims of foreign influence have been used to sentence more than 500 people in the past year. 

A recent ruling by the constitutional court to ban and brand football fan clubs as terrorist organisations further illustrates the extent of the clampdown on public dissent, which could backfire and actually provoke unrest, derailing the government’s economic aspirations.

A member of the Brotherhood, who has chosen to remain anonymous for security reasons, tells MEED: “We were [already] planning on taking to the streets on 30 June, but now we will be doing so with more fire in our bellies. I expect we will see 50 per cent more people at these protests because of the court’s decision.”

On the other hand, while many have predicted a wave of demonstrations following Mursi’s sentence, major cities across Egypt have seen a decline in street protests and general public disobedience against the government. “People just want to get on with their lives,” says Angus Blair, president of Cairo-based research agency Signet Institute.

Leveraging verdict

Despite widespread political and civic apathy following four years of instability and economic despair, the verdict against Mursi may be leveraged by other groups that are not directly affiliated with the Brotherhood.

“If the higher religious authority in Egypt does give the green light for Mursi’s execution, matters may take a different turn as a vast number of young people who are not supporters of the Brotherhood may use this as an opportunity to voice their concerns through ‘the counter-revolutionary movement’,” says Ahmed Ghoneim, analyst and Egypt expert at UK-based security research firm Other Solutions.

Al-Sisi’s support has been rooted in his economic plan for the country. The 2015/16 budget aims for real GDP growth to accelerate to 4.5-5 per cent and the president still seems to be riding the populist wave of optimism that has followed the EEDC.

Yet underneath this is a largely religious population still struggling amid a lack of housing and employment opportunities. There could be a return to the polarisation of society seen in 2012/13 if the situation on the ground does not improve and the state is seen to be reverting to Mubarak-era policing policies.

The Brotherhood’s biggest regional ally, Turkey, was quick to voice its condemnation of Mursi’s sentence. President Recep Erdogan referred to the court ruling as “capital punishment against democracy”. He also called on governments in the West to take a stance against the sentencing, criticising their silence, although the US released a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” over the verdict.

“Al-Sisi is unlikely to be concerned by the comments coming out of Ankara,” says Yasser Hassan, a Cairo-based lawyer and senior member of the Al-Wafd Party. “Relations with Turkey will not concern Al-Sisi because of Erdogan’s indiscriminate support of the Brotherhood.”

Following the sentencing, security will remain a priority for the government, which is desperately trying to restore stability and confidence both for citizens and international investors.

In March, with the support of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Al-Sisi invited the international investment community to attend the EEDC in an attempt to reintroduce the country’s ailing economy to the business world. The conference was held in the coastal city of Sharm el-Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula, not far from where the majority of terrorist attacks in the country have taken place over the past few years.

Most assaults have been in northern Sinai and, while it is difficult to attribute the violence to a single group, many attacks have been claimed by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which has pledged its allegiance to the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis). There have also been several smaller improvised explosive device attacks in Cairo, the Nile delta region and Upper Egypt.

Militant groups in Sinai continue to threaten the country’s stability. Yet it is difficult to make a connection between groups such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and the Brotherhood. “Attacks are sporadic and random; they often have an underlining economic and social motive rather than a wider political goal like you see in Libya,” says a prominent member of the banned April 6 Movement. But the connections that can be made are the disenfranchisement and discontent these groups feel towards the current government that is starting to sound, feel and act like the Mubarak regime.

“It is likely the militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis will use such questionable decisions as propaganda for recruitment to increase and legitimise their operations against military and police targets,” says Ghoneim.

Reigniting violence

Egypt enjoys the support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in fighting the threat of violent extremism, and this has provided Al-Sisi with the confidence to step up a domestic campaign against terrorism. But there is a fear the court decision may reignite violence in the country’s major cities, which has seen a decline in recent months. Some analysts have described this as a dangerous move that will re-energise the ‘anti-coup movement’.

After securing $130bn-worth of investment pledges during the EEDC, Egypt must ensure it does everything it can to commit to the promise of stability.

International companies that have either never operated in the country or pulled out following the 2011 revolution have been optimistic about its resurgence. But there are some that remain apprehensive and fear a worsening security situation. With the latest turn of events, many will be relieved they have trodden cautiously.

Al-Sisi has not provided details of how he plans to achieve the social cohesion required for stability, and with no reconciliation strategy outlined, it is difficult to see how the Brotherhood will fit into Egyptian society. The verdict against Mursi illustrates an age old tactic that has been used against the group since its inception. But a zero-tolerance approach may backfire in a new Egypt.

The important test for Cairo will come next month, with the looming flashpoint of the 30 June anniversary.

Timeline: Mursi’s downfall

2012

19 June: Mursi claims victory in Egypt’s election, with 52 per cent of the vote. He is officially declared the victor on 24 June.

24 June: The interim government of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) immediately weakens Mursi’s powers. It dissolves parliament, gives itself powers to write a new constitution and budget, and exempts the army from control by the president. On 9 July, Mursi orders parliament to reconvene, putting him at odds with the army and the Supreme Constitutional Court.

10 December: Mursi cancels a decree granting him sweeping new powers and immunity from judicial oversight, following widespread protests.

23 December: Vice-President Mahmoud Mekki resigns, the date coinciding with Egypt’s referendum on a new constitution. Mursi’s draft constitution was criticised by opponents as being rushed and lacking in detail. However, Egyptians vote in favour of the controversial constitution.

2013

31 January: At least 50 people are killed and thousands are wounded in riots. As head of Egypt’s armed forces, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi warns that continued protests could result in the collapse of the state. On 14 February, protests break out again in Cairo.

7 March: The Cairo Administrative Court suspends parliamentary elections, which were planned for April, saying Mursi’s electoral law needs approval by the Supreme Constitutional Court. One week later the government appeals the decision.

30 June: Protestors gather in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and outside the presidential palace. The protests are timed with the one-year anniversary of Mursi’s inauguration as president. Demonstrators accuse Mursi of failing to improve the country’s deteriorating economy and poor security situation.

3 July: As protests turn violent, Mursi says he will not step down, despite a 48-hour ultimatum given by the army to resolve the crisis. Later that evening, Al-Sisi announces that Mursi has been removed from office and that the constitution has been suspended. He says Mursi “failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people”. Mursi calls the move a military coup. Adly Mansour is made interim president and an interim government is sworn in on 16 July.

15 August: Following a crackdown on the pro-Mursi protest camps in Cairo, a one-month state of emergency is declared. Five days later Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie is arrested. Violence continues to flare, with 25 policemen killed in Sinai by suspected militant Islamic groups and 36 Islamists being held in police custody murdered.

2 September: It is announced that Mursi will face trial for inciting the murder of protesters in December 2012, when at least seven people were killed. The trial is adjourned on several occassions, while more charges relating to terrorism are added.

2014

24 March: An Egyptian court sentences 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death on charges of murdering a policeman. The decision is condemned internationally.

29 May: Al-Sisi wins Egypt’s presidential election, gaining 93.4 per cent of votes. Muslim Brotherhood candidates were banned from standing.

2015

21 April: A court spares Mursi the death sentence and instead hands him a 20 year prison sentence for the death of protesters in 2012.

16 May: Mursi is sentenced to death for his involvement in a mass prison break in 2011.