Legal experts and human rights activists say capital punishment should be ended in Egypt, but considerable time and effort is needed to put together an effective protest lobby.
Earlier this week, researchers tackled the death penalty issue during a panel discussion organized by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).
“Our aim is to gather a wide public voice against the death penalty in Egypt,” said Gamal Eid, the head of ANHRI. Alongside ANHRI, four other NGOs are campaigning for abolition of the death penalty, with support from activists, legal experts and even Islamic thinkers.
Legal experts say that in the Arab world, with many cases tried in military courts, the penalty poses a greater threat. “Use of such a penalty becomes more severe in the presence of a non-neutral judicial system,” said Nasser Amin, director of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession (ACIJLP). Amin points to the special military and state security courts in Egypt, where legal guarantees of a fair judgment are questionable.
The government recently attached the death penalty to offenses like drug dealing and rape, in an effort to abolish such crimes. “According to our research, increasing the punishment to the death penalty does not necessarily eliminate the crime. Instead, the state should research penal codes and sociology to eradicate these offenses, rather than increasing the punishment,” said Amin. The ACIJLP has just started a three-year campaign to abolish the death-penalty in Egypt.
In Egypt, 62 articles of the law list the death penalty as a possible sentence, including for killing, rape, espionage and robbery. Sentences, however, are appealable. When a sentence is final, the file of the accused is transferred to the Mufti, a religious consultative authority who approves the verdict. Only a presidential pardon can stop the execution of a death penalty after the rejection of its appeal.
In 2009, Arab courts issued 860 death sentences. Three states in the Middle East–Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan–allow the death penalty for juveniles.
Around 270 of the death sentences handed out in 2009 were in Egypt. In that year, a Kafr al-Sheikh local court in Egypt's Delta region sentenced ten citizens to execution for a rape case. On 8 October this year, the same court put nine Egyptians on death row for a single criminal case.
Egyptian activists are strongly opposed to capital punishment. “I am against taking away someone’s life whatsoever […] the harshness of the penalty doesn’t contribute to combating crime,” said Salma Saeed, a political activist.
Although little has been achieved, civil society continues to address the topic. "Raising the issue is important at this stage, especially when public opinion supports the penalty," said Negad al-Boraie, executive director of the United Group for Legal Advisory and Human Rights Advocacy.
"Egyptian society, in general, has deteriorated in the last years, you see more violence on a daily basis," added al-Boraie. "It will take civil society a long time to change people's culture, which links the death penalty to Islamic Sharia."
Islamic intellectuals agree that the death penalty is compatible with Islamic law, however some say the penalty is overused in Egyptian legislation.
“The death penalty is a deterrent that is necessary to create better human behavior, however Islamic Sharia doesn’t require the death penalty, except for pre-meditated murder," said Gamal al-Banna, a reformist Islamic thinker. According to al-Banna, there are tens of cases in the Egyptian Constitution requiring the death penalty which are not supported by Islamic law.
“The debate on whether to cancel the death penalty or not is a debate that we welcome, given that we have the right to object,” he added.
Contrary to al-Banna's interpretation of the restraints on the usage of the death penalty in the Quran, other theorists say there are wider cases that are punishable by death.
Mahmoud Ashour, member of the Islamic Research Institute, an official organization for Islamic research affiliated with Al-Azhar, says there are many cases of corruption that are punishable by death, according to Islam. “Drug dealers and gangsters could be punished by the death penalty as they ‘corrupt the earth’ and according to the Quran they should be killed,” he said.
“The death penalty is recommended to prevent excessive violence and to protect people’s lives,” Ashour added.
Egypt biggest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has expressed its disapproval of the campaign against capital punishment since it started back in 2009. Sayed Askar, a Muslim Brotherhood MP, labelled the NGOs' call for cancelling the death penalty an American-Zionist plot for increasing crime rates in the Arab world. “These people are quivering from rational thinking […] they want to empty Islam of its truths and roots and mainstream crime in the Islamic world, instead of abiding by God’s legislation.”
Despite such views and the tide of public opinion in favor of capital punishment, some Egyptians still feel the country would be better off if the death sentence were to be abolished.
“The death penalty boosts the culture of revenge in our society, when the state practices killing through executing such a verdict,” said Mohamed Abu el-Azayem, 23, an accountant. "In most cases it's not actually a deterrent […] in many countries abolishing the penalty leads to lesser crime rates."
One hundred and forty states all over the world have stopped using the death penalty, including Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia from the Arab world, but those activists who hope Egypt will follow on the same path still have a long way to go.
Al-Boraie compared the death penalty to female circumcision, which took years of campaigning in Egypt to change the public's convictions. The issue needs at least another five years, said al-Boraie, for the campaigners just to start contacting law makers and lobbying for legislative change.