NUMBERS tell part of the story. On November 29th an Egyptian judge absolved Hosni Mubarak, the country’s former president, and seven of his security chiefs of responsibility for the killing of some 239 people during 18 days of protests that led to Mr Mubarak’s overthrow. They became the latest in a roster of happy officials whom courts have declined to blame for more than 2,000 civilian deaths in clashes with the police during and since the January 2011 uprising. Days later another judge sentenced 188 people to hang for the murder of 14 policemen, bringing to over 1,000 the total of capital punishments (many since commuted) for political crimes this year.
No death sentences have been carried out, and both these cases will be appealed. Besides, no two crimes are equal: the 14 murdered policemen were savagely slaughtered in a mob assault with rockets, machineguns and machetes on a village police station. By contrast it may be harder to establish a chain of causality linking state officials to the far greater toll of deaths inflicted by policemen.
But the disparities go deeper than numbers. In scores of trials involving government officials, judges have dismissed or ignored compellingly incriminating evidence and state prosecutors have built suspiciously flimsy cases. Mr Mubarak remains in prison only because one dogged government whistle-blower, since demoted, kept receipts revealing the diversion of some $20m of tax money into refurbishing private presidential residences. His interior minister, who oversaw a long reign of torture and other police abuse, is serving time because of a dodgy contract for licence plates.
Meanwhile hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, banned after the coup in July 2013, languish in jail. Many are awaiting trial more than a year after their arrest. Scores of secular activists are in prison too, often simply for protesting peacefully. The judge who wants to hang 188 people earlier sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to stiff terms. Observers at their trial saw no evidence of criminality.
To many Egyptians, such justice seems geared to punish those who dare to challenge the state, and to rebuild the near-impunity enjoyed by officials in Mr Mubarak’s time. The former president’s judge has gone even further. His rambling 2,400-page ruling praises the nobility of the security forces, attributing the hundreds of dead from the 2011 uprising instead to a Zionist-American-Muslim Brotherhood plot.