The backlash to the death sentence handed down to Mohamed Morsi on Saturday was swift: The EU and U.S. have condemned the trial of Egypt’s former president as inhumane and “inconsistent with Egypt's international obligations and the rule of law.” Morsi’s political ally, Recept Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, warned of regional turmoil if Morsi is killed. And Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement warned that “all the world will pay” for his fate. But I think it’s premature to assume that this sentence will actually be carried out.
Since early 2014, Egyptian courts have sentenced hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death in mass trials, but have carried out almost none of these executions. The only Morsi supporter believed to have been executed so far, Mahmoud Hassan Ramadan—hanged last March for throwing a man off a rooftop during clashes in 2013—was not actually a member of the organization.
Part of this is the lengthy appeals process. Death penalties in Egypt, including Morsi’s have to be referred to the Grand Mufti, Egypt’s top religious authority, for approval (though the approval is not binding). Mufti Shawqi Allam rejected the death sentence of the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader last year and may do the same for Morsi, who appointed him to his position.
The opacity of the process—the Mufti’s opinions aren’t usually made public and the judiciary seems to decide on a case to case basis whether to abide by them—works to the regime’s advantage. By sentencing Morsi and his supporters to death, Egypt sends an unmistakable message to his allies in Egypt and abroad. (The charges against Morsi include collusion with Iran and the Brotherhood’s Palestinian allies, Hamas.) But the sentence could always be commuted later on as a sop to Egypt’s western allies. For now, Morsi is a very valuable bargaining chip.
When it comes to high-profile political cases, the Egyptian legal system seems to thrive on ambiguity. For instance, former leader Hosni Mubarak and his sons were sentenced to three years in prison earlier this month for embezzlement but it’s not clear whether they will actually serve any time—or whether the court will reopen murder charges that were overturned in January. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seems to prefer keeping potential rivals in a state of uncertainty and legal limbo than actually have their sentences carried out. Perhaps he’s been picking up some tips from his new friend Vladimir Putin.