Yes, the jailing of the three Al Jazeera journalists is an outrage and the judicial process that convicted them was a farce. Reportedly the “evidence” produced by the prosecution that Australian journalist Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleagues had spread false news and aided the Muslim Brotherhood included a Sky News programme on animal welfare in Egypt, a pop music video by the Australian singer Gotye and some holiday snaps taken by the Greste family. Even so, the highly selective outrage now being expressed in the West will be sending a perverse message to the generals in Cairo.
Think of it from the point of view of the generals. Their tactics are working for them. On June 11, their puppet judges jailed for 15 years the Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, a hero figure within Egypt for his leadership of the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak. What was the response in the West? Barely a murmur. In fact, in the direct aftermath of the El Fattah sentencing, Secretary of State John Kerry chose to reward the generals by lavishly praising President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the US released a further $575 million in military aid from the $1.3 billion in aid that the White House had originally frozen when the Army overthrew the elected Morsi government. Kerry gave assurances that the ten Apache helicopters that Egypt has long desired would soon be delivered:
“I am confident that we will be able to ultimately get the full amount of aid,” Mr. Kerry said in his first stop on a regional tour focused largely on responding to the crisis in Iraq. “I am confident…that the Apaches will come and that they will come very, very soon.”
Senior U.S. officials have voiced alarm at the Egyptian government’s crackdown on journalists and civil-society leaders at the Muslim Brotherhood since the coup d’étatagainst Mr. Morsi last July. On Saturday, an Egyptian court sentenced to death more than 180 members of the Brotherhood for allegedly attacking a police headquarters in southern Egypt and killing an officer and a civilian. The Egyptian government is also trying three journalists from the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network and 17 co-defendants for allegedly conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize the Egyptian state. A verdict in the case is expected on Monday.
[Kerry] stressed that Mr. Sisi needed more time to address U.S. and international concerns about these cases. “He gave me a very strong sense of his commitment to make certain that the process he has put in place, a re-evaluation of human-rights legislation, a re-evaluation of the judicial process, and other choices that are available are very much on his mind,” Mr. Kerry said.
So much for the crocodile tears that Kerry is uttering today about the Al Jazeera verdict. The reality is that a new authoritarian state has been created in Egypt. It is one where political opposition – e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood – has been banned, its leaders jailed and sentenced to death, its followers murdered in the streets. The student and labour leaders who were so useful to the Army in getting rid of Mubarak are now being jailed as well, lest they dare to raise their voices against the new tyranny. A clear message is being sent that public space – whether it be on Tahrir Square or on the Internet– now belongs to the generals.
Given the scale of the crackdown, the narrow focus in the West on the Al Jazeera journalists – while inevitable – offers the generals some ugly incentives. Clearly, if they persecute Egyptians, the international community will not really care – in fact, the White House will shower them with military aid. If they jail a Westerner such as Peter Greste though, the West will care a great deal – so if they ultimately show clemency in this one isolated case, John Kerry and the White House will be able to declare a victory for democracy, and will praise and reward the generals with even more military aid for these largely symbolic signs of “progress”.
It is not as if Egypt even cares much about the Al Jazeera in English broadcasts anyway. Their beef with Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood has to do with the work of the Al Jazeera in Arabic service, which is a separate news operation with a quite different tone and content. So yes, by all means, the Al Jazeera journalists need to be freed – yet so does Alaa Abd El Fattah, and so do hundreds of others. Right now, a large number of Egyptians are being persecuted by a totalitarian bunch of generals that the West chides on one day, and showers with weaponry on the next.
Spirit of 2011
Below is the most famous Tahrir Square protest song, written and performed by Ramy Essam in a space for protest that has now shrunk to non-existence. Essam has protested against the repression by Mubarak, by Morsi, and now, by the forces of al-Sisi. Last month, Essam was arrested and interrogated, as he explains in this article:
Ramy Essam rationalised: “The first hour, they leave you alone so that you can imagine all kinds of horrible things they might do to you. In the second part, they interrogated me about any connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, and in the third part, they tried to find out if I had any connection to other oppositional groups in the country. They seemed obsessed with trying to trace any collaboration between protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood. Of one hundred questions they asked me, 80 of these were such as ‘Are you a MB member?’ ‘Do you work for them?’, and I replied things like: ‘Are you crazy? I am Ramy Essam, I am against the Muslim Brotherhood and I have been protesting against them.’ Then they would say: ‘Tell me about your friends in the Muslim Brotherhood.’
I would tell them that the military and police are killing members of the Muslim Brotherhood and that I found authorities being very tough against them – ‘Sure, I am against this. But this does not make me a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood,’ I told them….“I told them that we are protestors. We are independent. We do not believe in any of the leaders. The chief investigating officer got angry and said: ‘Don’t think you will be able to go from here without admitting that you are being ‘part’ of something!’, and I replied:
‘You have to understand that people like me are people you cannot attack. We have no leaders, and we do not want anything from what we do. You have to know that our numbers are increasing, and you will need to find another way of dealing with us. We are the people. We want a better country. If I were you, I would be afraid of us’.”
Observers and political activists, who have previously been questioned by the National Security Police, believe that this interrogation was a first “warning” to the artist to “lie low”.Ramy Essam observed that many Egyptian artists are now afraid to protest publicly:“Artists are afraid of criticising the government even indirectly,” said Ramy. “After the killing of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, General al-Sisi has reached a status like an untouchable God, and people are afraid. They have gone back to their ‘caves’.”