Is the sentence too harsh, or too lenient? No sooner had the court's ruling been announced, than Egyptians fought bitterly over it in social networks. Fervent supporters of the current regime under former general, now President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi wish former President Mohammed Morsi would have received a death sentence instead.
But representatives of his Muslim Brotherhood, now banned as a "terrorist organization," speak of "the putschists' life sentence for democracy in Egypt" - although Morsi is anything but an upstanding democrat. But that's also not something the present rulers of Egypt, who come from the orbit of the powerful military, can claim to be. The generals drove the Islamist Morsi from power in 2013 by means of an uprising they partially staged themselves.
Trials and tribulations
The last word has yet to be spoken. Surprises are still possible: Now that he has been sentenced to prison, the 63-year-old Morsi has at least three other trials to look forward to. This time, he was found guilty of the alleged torture and arrest of demonstrators. He was, however, unexpectedly acquitted on the charge of responsibility for the deaths of several people.
As difficult as it is to assess each piece of evidence, it's clear that the verdict stands out in contrast to other court decisions: On the one hand, it is incomprehensibly severe when compared to that handed to the former ruler-for-life and notorious human rights abuser Hosni Mubarak. On the other hand, it's amazing that many other, generally far less influential, Muslim Brotherhood activists were long ago sentenced to death by Egypt's judiciary while Morsi has come away with 20 years.
Rule of law?
One obvious explanation is a change in the foreign-policy mood. After initial criticism of Morsi's overthrow, key Western governments took a realistic approach in the wake of the anti-terror struggle - ultimately, they are interested in the best possible cooperation with the most populous country in the Arab world. The US has resumed military aid; Paris may soon sign a multibillion dollar arms deal with Cairo; German Chancellor Angela Merkel has invited al-Sissi to Berlin. An overly harsh sentence would have been hard to square with this rapprochement, which Egypt's rulers have desperately been hoping for as they tackle a very dramatic economic situation.
But even if the judgment against Morsi may seem relatively mild by today's Egyptian standards, Amnesty International rightly points out that the trial was neither fair nor conducted in accordance with the rule of law. The same is true of virtually all politically important trials in Egypt in recent years. Regardless of whether Islamists or leftists were in the dock, they were convicted and locked away.
Justice by the wayside
Now Egypt's weathervane judiciary has shown how smoothly it can change direction to align with the political climate. But this is not justice. The dramatic upheavals in Egypt in recent years have claimed a frightening number of casualties. At least 600 were believed killed just in the crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protests against Morsi's ouster.
Those responsible for these acts fear neither death nor life imprisonment. They will probably never have to appear in court, at least not under al-Sissi. They are members of the ruling system.
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