Even for a country torn from within by spite and treachery, the mass death sentences meted out to political dissidents in Egypt in the past month were grotesque. Some 1,200 members and supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood were sentenced for their role in the death of a policeman during anti-regime protests, without so much as a nod to evidence-based hearings. Most sentences will be commuted after a judicial and theocratic review, as happened in nine out of 10 cases in the first batch of some 500 convictions. But this was not the point.
The army which deposed president Mohamed Mursi, Egypt's first freely elected leader since antiquity, knew what needed to be done to ensure sustained rule of the generals was to smash the Brotherhood, the political force it fears most, and cow into acquiescence would-be political organisers from the secular and liberal segments of the population. It is succeeding, to judge from events. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Mursi's defence minister-turned-nemesis, will go on to claim the presidency in elections this month. The military which got a free pass from the United States in the coup against Mursi will continue to receive its aid and arms; the Saudis and Israelis are pleased with the return of the status quo; and Egypt will continue playing a patrician role in the region. It would be as if the Mursi interlude never happened.
But who stands up for the suffering people? Their right to a decent living - of jobs, family security, reliable services, a future to plan for - is more relevant in the changing landscape than political enfranchisement. The army, usually, is forever. Questions will become louder about whether the revolt which ended Hosni Mubarak's rule had been futile. The judgment of many Egyptians was that Mursi squandered his mandate by playing the religious card and neglecting his duty to the people. Democracy and the liberal spirit which fuelled the protests against authoritarianism were mortally wounded.
The people must now hope Gen Sisi would not make the same mistake of placing the interests of the elites above those of the nation. Far from alienating the civilian political classes with intimidation, he should seek some level of a ruling consensus by embracing them. It will not be easy, though, as public cynicism runs deep after the betrayal of Tahrir Square.
The alternative would be to condemn the country to internecine warfare. An added danger is the growth of jihadism for export, shown in recent car bombings of security installations. Egypt, a country with a grand history, deserves better than being lumped together with failed states in the region as a breeding ground of freelance militants.