Arab Sharkas executions in Egypt: Justice or revenge?

On May 19, the Egyptian Court of Administrative Judiciary was scheduled to look into a lawsuit that demands annulling the death sentence handed to six young men on charges of carrying out terrorist attacks in the case known as Arab Sharkas. On May 17, the same six were executed by the Military Court, which issued the initial sentence.

The heated debates following the executions were different from others commonly associated with this type of trial, such as how politicized the verdict might be, the culpability of the defendants, or the referral of civilians to military courts. The controversy revolved around what was specifically unique about this case: the speed with which the executions were carried out, and the reasons for not waiting for the result of the lawsuit contesting the verdict.

Lawyer Fatma Serag sees the lawsuit filed with the administrative judiciary as “the only available window for appealing the Military Court’s verdict and putting the death sentence on hold.” Serag said the decision to execute the defendants broke all the rules that have always been observed in such cases.

“There’s always a long time, usually years, separating the issuance and implementation of a death sentence, even when the verdict is final,” she said. “The Prisons’ Authority does that in order to give the chance for new evidence to emerge, and which may lead to postponing or annulling the verdict. Why was this verdict in particular carried out that quickly?”

Mohamed Adel, head of the Litigation Unit at the Egyptian Center for Economic and Political Rights, said he had the answer to Serag’s question. “The execution was carried out two days before the hearing of the other lawsuit to close any door to a verdict that might postpone the execution,” Adel said. He added that even when a death sentence becomes final, it has to take a turn on death row, which means it waits until earlier death sentences are carried out.

“This usually takes at least six months. In this case, only two months had passed since the verdict became final,” he said, referring to the Military Court’s rejection of the appeal in March. Adel said the defendants were deprived of their legal rights when they were executed that fast. “According to the law, families of the defendants have to be notified of the time of the execution, and defendants should be allowed final visits.”

Mahmoud Salmani, a member of the movement “No to the Military Trial of Civilians,” saw the execution as an indication of the main problem inherent in the idea of military judiciary, since its very presence violates the principle of the separation of powers.

“Judges in the Military Court are appointed by the head of the Military Judiciary Authority. This authority reports to the minister of defense who, in turn, is affiliated to the executive power,” he said. “This means that the military judiciary isn’t independent.”

A Human Rights Watch report voiced the same concern and demanded, weeks before the execution, that the defendants be retried before a civilian court. “Egypt’s military courts, whose judges are serving military officers, are neither independent nor impartial, but in October 2014 President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi increased their powers to try civilians by expanding their jurisdiction over any crimes that occur on state or public property,” said the report.

Criminal sciences expert General Refaat Abdel Hamid said in the case of defendants facing trial before two courts, the court that issues the first sentence has the right to carry it out. “This applies to the death penalty and to cases where one court is civilian and the other military,” he said. “In case of execution, the second pending trial is automatically dropped.”

Ahmed Helmi, a member of the defendants’ defense team, agreed with Abdel Hamid. “Filing a lawsuit against the verdict doesn’t oblige the Prisons Authority to postpone carrying out this verdict,” he said. “When the Military Court rejected the appeal, the verdict became enforceable and filing a lawsuit with an administrative court wouldn’t stop it. The only exception would be if the administrative court accepts the case.”

Professor of criminal law Mahmoud Kobeish blamed the administrative judiciary for not treating the matter with more urgency. “The administrative court should’ve set an earlier date for looking into the case to guarantee that the execution could be put on hold,” he said.

Analysts who supported the execution of the verdict expressed their concern over the reaction of the militant group to which the defendants reportedly belong, namely Ansar Beit al-Maqdes. “The group will do its best to prove its existence, and to convince Egyptians and the international community that the verdict was politicized,” said political writer Gamal Asaad.

“That’s why the Ministry of Interior declared a state of emergency right after the executions were carried out.” Asaad also expected that several countries and human rights organizations that have opposed the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood would condemn the executions.


Professor of political science Tarek Fahmy said the revenge of militants has become more immediate than expected. “This was made very clear when three judges were assassinated in Sinai on the same day [former President Mohammed] Mursi and several Brotherhood leaders received a death sentence.”

The link between the executions and the killing of the judges took the controversy to a different level, as it was debated whether the decision to hasten the execution was aimed at avenging the judges. Hesham al-Mayani said what was more serious than whether the executions were fair is for the state to become party to a feud with militants and to allow this to impact its decisions.

“It is obvious that members of the Arab Sharkas cell were not scheduled to be executed on that day, especially that the state had enough on its plate with the strong reactions the latest death sentences against Mursi and Brotherhood members brought about on both the domestic and international levels,” he wrote. “This changed when the judges were killed.”

Mayani said he did not object to the verdict but rather to the timing, since it demonstrated that militants have succeeded in dragging the state into a cycle of revenge. “We will be fooling ourselves if we believe that the judges are now avenged because all what the state did was punishing terrorists it already had under its control for a crime committed by other terrorists,” he said. “Punishment for each crime should target those who committed this crime. We cannot assume that punishing another criminal would stop the criminals who are still at large.”

Security experts, however, see fast executions as the way to speed up the elimination of terrorist cells. “It’s important to get rid of members of those cells as fast as possible so that Egypt can regain its security,” said strategic expert General Hamdi Bekheet. “Executions should be accompanied by a series of clampdowns on those terrorists in their strongholds.”

Military expert General Talaat Mussallam disagreed with speculation about an increase in terrorist operations following the execution: “Militants strike whenever they get the chance, regardless of death sentences their fellow-militants receive.”

For Mussallam, the assassination of the judges illustrates the growing danger of militant groups, and which necessitates their immediate elimination. “Militants were targeting army and police officers; now they’ve added judges.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was at Cairo International Airport to welcome 27 Ethiopians who were abducted by militants in Libya and freed by Egyptian authorities. In a press conference at the airport in the presence of the Ethiopian ambassador to Cairo, Sisi said Ethiopians were “brothers,” adding: “We’re one people. We drink from the same water,” referring to the Nile.

News of the rescue was generally well-received in Egypt, even if for different reasons. Analysts wondered how political such a humanitarian initiative could be, and how beneficial it is expected to be for Egyptian-Ethiopian relations, particularly regarding disputes over shares of Nile water.

Bilateral relations

Mokhtar Ghobashi, head of the Arab Center for Strategic and Political Studies, said Egypt was setting a precedent for bilateral relations with Ethiopia based on mutual support. “In return for such a humanitarian initiative, Egypt expects Ethiopia to understand its dire need for its full share of Nile water,” he said.

Egypt might be hoping that Ethiopia will stop work on the Grand Renaissance Dam, which is expected to drastically affect Egypt’s share of Nile water, until bilateral negotiations are completed, Ghobashi added.

Nagi al-Shehabi, head of Al-Geel Party – which focuses on the Nile’s role in Egypt’s political and economic development – says the rescue is “a token of goodwill” that will positively impact the progress of negotiations.

“This is especially true because of the complexity of the operation that led to the rescue, which involved a great deal of courage, planning and intelligence,” he said. “This is bound to deepen the relations between the two countries, and to urge Ethiopia not to infringe upon Egypt’s historical right to Nile water.”

Strategic expert General Mokhtar Qandeel said: “Ethiopians are a kind people and they’ll definitely feel grateful.” Ambassador and former Deputy Foreign Minister Mona Omar said: “The rescue had a very positive impact on Ethiopian public opinion.”

Beshir Abdel Fattah, researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, agreed that the rescue was part of an Egyptian plan to ease tension that followed Ethiopia’s decision to construct the dam.

“Ethiopia decided to proceed with the construction of the dam right after [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, without taking into consideration the hard times through which Egypt was going,” he said.

“Ethiopia has also not put the construction on hold while negotiations are ongoing. These are all alarming signs.” Abdel Fattah said while rescuing the Ethiopians was a “nice gesture” on Egypt’s part, “it’ll never stop the construction of the dam.”

Continental role

General Fouad Allam, strategic expert and former head of Egypt’s State Security Bureau, said the change in bilateral relations “will take some time. We have to bear in mind that the current regime is now redressing decades-long mistakes which involved extreme negligence of Egypt’s relations with Africa, and which eventually led some African countries to act against Egypt’s interests, as is the case with the Renaissance Dam.”

Security expert General Sameh Seif al-Yazal said the rescue delivered “a message that Egypt will always stand by its African neighbors. Egypt is starting to restore its leading role in the continent once more.”

This role, he added, would be further enhanced when Egypt frees the second group of Ethiopians detained in Libya: “This is just the first round. Another group will be released in the coming few days.”

Tamer al-Zayadi, an expert in economic policy, said the rescue demonstrated to Africa Egypt’s military prowess beyond its borders and under tough circumstances: “Now it’s obvious that the Egyptian army is strong enough to assume a leading regional role.”

Emad Awni, an expert in political and strategic affairs, said Sisi’s decision to personally receive the freed Ethiopians was “a message that the president is the protector of not only Egyptians, but also all Africans.”

Double standards?

Talk about the ability of Egyptian intelligence and the military has driven many to ask why the same had not happened with the 21 Copts who were beheaded by militants in Libya.

Mina Thabet, a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, said Egyptian authorities made very little effort to save the Copts compared to what was done for the Ethiopians. “The Egyptian state was capable of striking militants’ strongholds in Libya, and was then capable of freeing Ethiopian hostages detained by militants,” Thabet said. “How come it wasn’t capable of saving the Copts?”

Thabet added that the families of the Copts provided information about them when they were still alive and which they gathered on their own, but the state did not make good use of it. “The Foreign Ministry kept telling the families that they’d coordinate with tribal chiefs but nothing happened, while in the case of the Ethiopians this coordination became possible.”

Some analysts attributed the Egyptian state’s alleged reluctance to save the Copts to its desire to find a strong justification for striking the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) inside Libya. “Egypt possibly wanted a pretext to strike Libyan territories and support General Haftar against the Muslim Brotherhood there,” said Ambassador and former Deputy Foreign Minister Ibrahim Yousri.

However, political science professor Mohamed al-Saadani said: “It’s very possible that this time Egypt was able to find suitable mediators that are close to the kidnappers and were, therefore, able to secure the release of the prisoners. Similar attempts could’ve failed at the time of the Coptic hostages. The presidency and the Foreign Ministry did try a lot.”

Can Egyptian-American Mohamed Soltan be Deported?

Can Egyptian-American Mohamed Soltan be Deported?

With Mohamed Soltan’s hunger strike exceeding 450 days, speculation is rife as to how long he can survive in an Egyptian prison. In early April, Soltan, who is an American-Egyptian dual citizen, was sentenced to life in prison—technically a twenty-five year sentence in Egypt. A new law introduced last November by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi allowing for the deportation of foreign citizens, whether convicts or suspects, raised hopes that it would also apply to Soltan. It was under this law that Australian journalist Peter Greste was deported after being sentenced to seven years in a Cairo prison. A lack of any substantial visible steps in that direction, however, suggests that Soltan’s fate likely won’t differ from that of other activists who have received similarly harsh sentences.

Soltan was sentenced on charges of spreading false news and supporting the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. He was arrested at the pro-Mohamed Morsi sit-in at Raba’a al-Adaweya following its violent dispersal in August 2013, where he had been helping foreign journalists cover the sit-in

According to Mokhtar Mounir, a lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, the law that allowed for Greste’s deportation can technically be applied to Soltan. “Law number 140 for the year 2014 allows the repatriation of foreign prisoners to their home countries so they can serve their time or be retried there,” he said. While the law does not explicitly refer to dual citizenship, according to Mounir, “In the case of dual nationality, the other country of which this foreigner is a citizen also has the right to call for his repatriation, provided that he gives up his Egyptian citizenship.” Mounir noted that Soltan will not be forced to give up his Egyptian citizenship if the Egyptian state decides of its own accord to send him to the United States.

Soltan had told the court in March that he would never give up his Egyptian citizenship. “If I am given the choice between the Egyptian nationality and my freedom, I will choose the former,” he told the presiding judge. Maha Youssef, a member of Soltan’s defense team, said in early March that several officials asked him to give up his Egyptian citizenship if he wants the law to apply to him. “He totally rejects the idea and this is totally up to him,” she said.

Judge Refaat al-Sayed, the former head of the Cairo Court of Appeals, arguedthat the law does not apply to Soltan. “The law applies to foreigners who do not hold Egyptian citizenship,” he said. “Soltan’s renunciation of his Egyptian citizenship does not exempt him from facing trial in Egypt since he committed his crimes in Egypt while holding the Egyptian citizenship.” Sayed supported his argument with articles from the Egyptian Penal Code, which state that the law applies to every Egyptian who commits a crime inside Egypt. “The Penal Code does not make exceptions for dual nationals,” he added.

Last October, US State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said that Washington “raised the case with Egyptian officials at the highest level.” A few weeks later, the Cairo Criminal Court, which sentenced Soltan, also reportedly refused a request submitted by the American Consulate in Cairo, asking for his release on medical grounds. Following his conviction, both theWhite House and State Department expressed their disappointment at the sentence he received. Soltan’s family, however, believes US authorities have not exhausted all efforts to secure his release. Soltan’s relative, Sara said on the day of the verdict, “They did not do what they are expected to do for an American citizen, possibly because of the complex relations between the US administration and the current Egyptian regime.”

Abed Ayoub, the legal director of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, argued that Washington is paying close attention to Soltan’s case and cited the statements issued by the White House and the State Department. “Those statements contain important political messages. True, they are not enough as long as no steps are taken, but something seems to be happening behind the scenes,” he said, not elaborating on what that might be, or the possible outcomes. Ayoub noted that Soltan is not the only American facing legal problems outside the United States. “There are dozens of similar cases in different countries.”

In Egypt, Soltan’s case is either met with apathy or contempt. Freedom for the Brave, a grassroots initiative campaigning for the release of political prisoners, declared solidarity with Soltan soon after his arrest. They called upon Egyptians to send letters to the Prosecutor General demanding his release for humanitarian reasons, while Twitter campaigns in English and in Arabic were launched. Several rights organizations also issued statements expressing their concerns over Soltan’s deteriorating health and demanded his transfer to a hospital, without calling for his release. Signatories included the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. None of these campaigns have had any impact. Many Egyptians, however, have either never heard of Soltan, have lost interest in following the news of political prisoners, or worse yet have lauded the sentence. Support for the current regime has shifted the balance against revolutionary youths, who are now seen by many as detrimental to Egypt’s national security. Like Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Douma, Soltan is just another troublemaker. Securing support for Soltan’s case is made all the more challenging given his connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. While Soltan is not a member himself, his father—Salah Soltan—is a leading Brotherhood figure and was sentenced to death in the same case.

The final call for Soltan’s deportation lies not with a judge but rather is a decision made by presidential decree. Greste’s deportation served Egypt-Australia relations, and came after much pressure from the Australian government. In the case of Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, who was tried alongside Greste, renouncing his Egyptian citizenship appears to have had no effect on bringing about his deportation, as he faces retrial. Soltan’s family ties to the Brotherhood make a presidential decree highly unlikely.

Egyptians panic as country reels from Nile contamination

The capsizing of a ship carrying 500 tons of phosphate in the Nile has sent shockwaves across Egypt. As a state of emergency has been declared and an investigation committee established, concerns keep escalating about the impact of the spill on crops, potable water and marine life.

Views on the issue have been strikingly different, with some regarding it as a prelude to a disaster, and others downplaying it as an exaggerated reaction to an easily manageable situation.

Panic among Egyptians was especially highlighted when three days after the accident, some 500 people were hospitalized for showing symptoms of poisoning in the Nile Delta governorate of Sharqiyya. A link was immediately established between the mass sickness and the contamination of Nile water.


However, Irrigation Minister Hossam Moghazi dismissed such a link, saying the Nile passes by seven cities between Qena inthe south, where the ship capsized, and Sharqiyya in the north.

“None of those seven cities reported cases of poisoning,” he said. “Plus, it would take 12 days for the contamination to reach the Nile Delta, while the poisoning took place only three days after the ship capsized.” Moghazi added that samples taken from Nile water in Sharqqiya showed no signs of contamination.

Irrigation Ministry spokesman Khaled Wassef said the poisoning of Nile water was unlikely. “Phosphate isn’t soluble in water so there’s little risk,” he said. Health Minister Adel Adawi said patients showed no symptoms of phosphate poisoning, adding that the ministry was monitoring the situation. “Nile water is being tested every 12 hours to detect any change,” he said.


Such statements did not, however, dissipate fears of an impending crisis, especially with the death of one of the Sharqiyya patients, reports that the number of poisoning cases has exceeded 700, and no decisive explanation for the poisonings.

Magdi Allam, secretary general of the Union for Arab Environmental Experts, said the phosphate the ship carried was in the form of rocks, not powder, which explains the insolubility theory. “Pure phosphate is extracted from these rocks at fertilizer factories, and this is a complicated chemical process,” he said, adding that out of the 500 tons, the quantity of pure phosphate would not exceed 20 percent.

Allam said those rocks would either not dissolve in water at all, or dissolve at a very slow rate. “Even if part of it dissolves, the Nile extends all the way from the south to the north of Egypt. The concentration of phosphate will, therefore, be very low in all this amount of water,” he said.

Toxicology Professor Mahmoud Amr seconded Allam’s opinion: “The ship didn’t sink in a canal or a lake, and Nile water isn’t stagnant and the current is very strong at the place where the accident took place.”

Amr scoffed at rumors about the link between the accident and poisoning cases in the north: “It would’ve been more logical that people get poisoned in Qena or other Upper Egyptian governorates. How come it started in Sharqiyya?”

Professor of toxicology and environmental diseases, Nabil Abdel Maksoud, underlined the dangers of mineral impurities contained in phosphate rocks. “Those minerals are soluble, and can reach the human body through potable water, fish and crops,” he said.

“If the water isn’t thoroughly purified, minerals like cadmium and silicon dioxide can reach the stomach, causing severe diarrhea and vomiting as well as other long-term problems like atrophy of the central nervous system and the immune system.”

Abdel Maksoud said those mineral impurities can be removed at water treatment stations before the water is available for human consumption. “It’s important, in this case, to decrease the percentage of chloride acid, used for purifying water, because it accelerates the dissolution of cadmium,” he said. “It’s also necessary to leave water for longer times in oxidation ponds.”

Yehia Gadou, secretary general of the NGO Voice of the Nile, said the spill is another example of the abuse to which the Nile is subjected. “Why is cargo containing toxins or hazardous material transferred through the Nile in the first place? Why aren’t they transferred by train, which is in fact a much cheaper way?” he asked, adding that the NGO has sent a request to that effect to the government.

“The Nile, around which the world’s most ancient civilization was founded, has for a long time been subject to a variety of violations. Fertilizers and chemical waste are thrown into the Nile. Donkeys and buffalos are bathed in the Nile. Sewage is dumped into the Nile. This is only to cite a few examples.”


Journalist and blogger Laurie Balbo seemed to dismiss the arguments of both camps about the level of threat posed by the spill. Balbo said there were several types of “phosphates,” therefore it was impossible to determine the impact of the spill without knowing the exact components of the sunken load, which in turn determines how soluble it is.

“Phosphates are natural salt derivatives of the element phosphorus, negatively charged ions that link with positively charged ions such as sodium, potassium, ammonium, lead, and barium, each greatly changing how phosphate behaves,” she wrote.

“Some phosphates (aluminum phosphate as example) would present human health risks such as skin irritation and – if ingested – abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea. Others (such as highly toxic lead phosphate) would leach into the water at a low concentration, but stay present for a long time if the spill is not quickly cleaned up. Without having more specific information about the nature of the material, it is impossible to foretell health risks.”

Balbo said while Egypt’s dependence on Nile water was a matter of life and death, the authorities did not seem to be examining the matter thoroughly, and official statements about the insolubility of the material were not accurate since they were not accompanied by a detailed account of the components of the shipment.


Journalist and anchor Amani al-Khayat blamed the Muslim Brotherhood. “We need to know who was driving this ship, who his assistants are and what their history looks like,” she said. “We also need to know the load allowed for a ship of this size, and whether the load of this ship conformed with regulations.”

Khayat said it was suspicious that even though the ship crashed into a concrete bridge pillar, neither the driver nor his two assistants sustained any injuries. “There wasn’t even one single bruise! They don’t look like they were taken by surprise. It’s obvious that they crashed it.”

Khayat said the accident was one of many orchestrated by the Brotherhood since the ouster of President Mohammed Mursi, to “block the path of Egyptians toward the state they aspire for.” She also accused the Brotherhood of scheming to poison Egyptians in Sharqiyya. “Think of why Sharqiyya in particular was chosen? Isn’t Mursi’s hometown in Sharqiyya? Isn’t Sharqiyya home to a large number of senior Brotherhood leaders?”