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Egypt’s Power Struggle Intensifies with Killing of Prosecutor Behind Mass Jailings of Islamists

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Egypt’s public prosecutor has been killed in a bomb attack in Cairo. Hisham Barakat died in hospital Monday after a remote bomb detonated next to his car outside his home as he drove to work. Eight others were also hurt in the blast. Barakat became a target of militants after he sent thousands of Islamists to trial following the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. We speak with Cairo-based Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We move right now to Egypt, where a national holiday marking the second anniversary of the June 30th revolution that ousted President Mohamed Morsi has been canceled after Egypt’s public prosecutor was killed in a bomb attack in Cairo. Hisham Barakat died in hospital on Monday after a remote bomb detonated next to his car outside his home as he drove to work. Eight others were also hurt in the blast. Barakat became a target of militants after he sent thousands of Islamists to trial following the overthrow of Morsi in 2013. He’s the most senior figure to have been targeted for assassination since a 2013 attempt on the life of the then-interior minister.

The bombing came as an emergency Arab League meeting was underway in the Egyptian capital following recent attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility. On Friday, a lone gunman shot dead 38 people in the Tunisian resort town of Sousse before being killed by police. Most of the victims were European tourists, mainly British. The self-proclaimed Islamic State also took credit for a simultaneous attack in Kuwait, where a suicide bomber killed 27 people at a Shiite mosque. Egypt’s ambassador to the Arab League, Tarek Adel, said it must fight to eliminate the terrorist threat.

TAREK ADEL: [translated] Egypt will not hesitate to stand beside its sister countries in the face of terrorism and abolishing it completely—that is not exclusive to one organization alone—until it’s uprooted and defeated completed.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined right now in our New York studio by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, usually based in Cairo, Egypt. He most recently reported from Yemen, wrote a piece for Foreign Policy headlined “Saudis Above, Houthis Next Door, and Death All Around.” His Nation magazine piece is headlined “Death and Devastation in Sanaa.”

Sharif, it’s great to have you back in New York. Can you talk, though, about what’s just taken place in Egypt, the assassination of the public prosecutor?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yeah. I mean, this is a very significant escalation in the ongoing battle between militants and the state. Hisham Barakat is the first top official to be killed in Egypt in a quarter of a century. It’s the first time a public prosecutor has ever been assassinated in Egyptian history. And he’s really the highest-profile official to be killed since the coup two years ago which ousted the president, Mohamed Morsi. And it comes on the eve—it came on the eve of the June 30th mass protests that led to Morsi’s ouster. But it really deals a blow to the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who really rose to power on the promise of restoring stability and order in Egypt. He has justified a very broad and harsh crackdown against his opponents in order to eliminate the militant threat. And so, really, the war on terror is his raison d’être, if you will. And with this killing, he seems to again—it’s a sign that he’s losing this war on terror, and there’s more terrorism in Egypt in the past two years than we’ve ever had.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip of—responding to the death sentence that was recently handed down for Mohamed Morsi and dozens of others. The ruling came in the case of a 2011 prison break one year before Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected leader. He was later ousted in a 2013 coup. Morsi’s attorneys say they’ll appeal. The decision drew international criticism, including from the U.S., a key ally of the Egyptian regime. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the U.S. is “deeply troubled” by Morsi’s sentence.

PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: We are deeply troubled by the politically motivated sentences that have been handed down against former President Morsi and several others by an Egyptian court today. We understand that Mr. Morsi’s attorneys intend—Mr. Morsi’s attorney intends to appeal the sentence. The United States has repeatedly raised concerned about the detention and sentencing of a variety of political figures in Egypt. And we are concerned that the proceedings have been conducted in a way that is not only contrary to universal values, but also damaging to the stability that all Egyptians deserve.

AMY GOODMAN: In a report on Egypt quietly submitted to Congress last month, the Obama administration found “the overall trajectory for rights and democracy has been negative.” But the report concludes, despite a series of abuses and the undermining of a free society, Egypt is too important to U.S. interests for any cuts to annual military aid. Sharif?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. I mean, the U.S. policy towards Egypt has not changed really in any significant way for decades. We’ve seen them prioritize national security objectives over other objectives, like human rights and the rule of law and democracy. And so we’ve seen that continue.

With regards to the targeting of Hisham Barakat, the public prosecutor, I think it’s significant because it also marks a move from these militant groups, which have almost exclusively targeted police and army forces, to targeting the judiciary. When we look at the judiciary in Egypt, it really has shed any semblance of neutrality over the past few years. During the Mubarak era, while there were certainly judges loyal to the state, you could get some court rulings that were not favorable to the government, and so you had the Mubarak government resorting to exceptional courts like military tribunals or state security courts. But since the revolution, many state institutions, including the judiciary, have adopted a siege mentality in what they view as an existential threat to their survival. And we’ve seen, really, the judiciary go from in some ways being a curb on the regime’s most authoritarian impulses to being a willing partner in repression.

And so, we’ve seen not only the targeting of Islamists, where you have Hisham Barakat, for example, put on trial; Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, he has since been sentenced to life in prison and has received a death sentence. The head of the Muslim Brotherhood, the supreme guide, has been sentenced to death in five separate cases. But this crackdown has really gone way beyond Islamists to target non-Islamist critics—so, many of the revolutionary activists that were at the heart of the 2011 uprising—but, beyond that, to really anyone who has spoken out against the government, and this has included human rights advocates, civil society workers, trade unionists and journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists, just last week, put out a report that found that it’s the highest number of journalists jailed in Egypt since it began keeping records in 1990. There’s at least 18 journalists behind bars. Six of them have been sentenced to death in a mass trial. Many of them are accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was a banned organization.

So—but with regards to Hisham Barakat himself, I mean, he was a highly controversial figure. He was appointed on July 10th, 2013, a week after the coup that overthrew Morsi that was backed by the government, and he has come under repeated threat because of this crackdown. And despite that, he seems to have been very poorly protected. He took the same route from his office—from his home to his office, and this was the route that he was attacked on. And it was very similar to an attack a couple of years ago against the then-interior minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, a car bomb near his convoy going from home to work.

Now, we don’t have any—no one’s claimed responsibility for this attack. The State Information Service has been very quick to point that the Muslim Brotherhood was responsible. The Muslim Brotherhood has rejected this violence but has said that the government is responsible for it because of the violence it perpetrated against civilians. However, it does bear the hallmarks of a group known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which is a Sinai-based jihadist group which has since pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and calls itself the Sinai Province. It was responsible for a failed assassination attempt against the interior minister in 2013. It posted a video on Sunday that appeared to threaten more attacks on the judiciary and showed what looked like the killing of three judges in May who were gunned down. And there’s also been other groups that have sprung up, especially in the last year, smaller groups with names like Revolutionary Punishment and things like that, who have pledged to commit violence against the state in the face of what they see as an overwhelming crackdown. These groups tend to do smaller-style attacks, but we have to see who’s—you know, who’s going to claim responsibility for this one.

AMY GOODMAN: Any relation to ISIS?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, this group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, has pledged allegiance to ISIS and now calls itself the Province of Sinai, as if it’s part of the Islamic State and it’s based in Sinai. The degree to which they actually get logistical support, weapons support, financial support, is highly questionable. This may just be more of an ideological allegiance. And also, they have really only targeted so far, in their large-scale bombings, police and security forces. And attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure has been really to a minimum.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about the number of people, journalists, Islamists, dissidents, who are in jail. What about the leading dissidents, and how many people are in jail—for example, Alaa?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Alaa Abd El-Fattah is, you know, a leading face of the 2011 revolution. He’s serving a five-year prison sentence. His sister is serving a two-year prison sentence.

AMY GOODMAN: How old is she?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: She, I believe, is 20 now. She just celebrated her birthday. I was at the protest that she was arrested from, and it was a completely peaceful protest and arguably the last one by that sort of group, who were against a protest law that was issued by this unelected government, a cabinet, that basically banned all demonstrations in Egypt. But really we’re seeing an unprecedented crackdown in Egypt. We’ve seen up to 40,000 people thrown in prison. Now the cabinet has passed an anti-terror law which is extremely draconian, which—you know, the Internet is one of the last spaces for dissent in Egypt, and there is healthy dissent on Facebook and on Twitter and other outlets, and now this anti-terror bill has a cybercrime element to it which allows authorities to imprison people for up to five years for very vague crimes as, you know, harming national security and so forth.

The Nadeem Center, which is a human rights group, has recently put out a report that found that 270 people in the last year alone were killed by the police, either in police stations, on the street or while they’re in custody, in different ways. And they’re saying that this was the worst year documented for human rights for them. And we’ve seen this kind of crackdown come with complete impunity for the security forces. So there’s hardly any police officers have been sentenced to prison for the killing of hundreds of people, thousands of people, and we’ve seen acquittal after acquittal for former regime officials.

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