The unjustified conviction of three Al Jazeera journalists on charges of conspiring with the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is a miscarriage of justice. It’s also a symptom of a broader, brutal repression of post-coup dissent in the country.
Several Western nations, human rights organizations and everyday citizens already have protested the prosecution, which may be a manifestation of Egypt’s hostility toward Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based. Pressure should be kept on Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, the former general who just became president in a sketchy election, to free the journalists and to respect international human rights standards. Already el-Sissi appears to be as oppressive as Hosni Mubarak, the last military man to rule Egypt.
The three journalists — Egyptian Baher Mohamed, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Australian Peter Greste — were held in a courtroom cage and convicted in a trial that Amnesty International called a “complete sham.” The three men are widely respected by their peers, and their collective reporting resumes include work for CNN, the New York Times and the BBC. They were simply doing their jobs, and now Greste and Fahmy face seven years in prison, while Mohamed, who had kept a spent bullet casing from one of the protests as a souvenir, faces 10 years in an Egyptian jail. Several students were also convicted in the Orwellian trial, and other journalists were convicted in absentia.
Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and other organizations say there is no evidence to suggest that the three had links to the Muslim Brotherhood or that they reported anything but the truth about Egypt’s turmoil.
Instead, this appears to be a clear attempt to silence them and to intimidate other journalists from exposing, let alone challenging, el-Sissi’s autocracy.
“In the last year, there have been a number of attacks on journalists and media institutions by Egyptian authorities in an effort to silence critics,” said Sunjeev Bery, Middle East and North Africa advocacy director for Amnesty International USA. “It’s all part of a larger crackdown on human rights and basic freedoms across Egyptian society.”
The repression has included killing at least 1,400 protesters, detaining 16,000 people, and issuing mass death sentences to the leader and 182 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Amnesty International.
The U.S. State Department detailed the crackdown in a searing 2013 human rights report issued in March. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to criticize the verdicts, calling the convictions “chilling, draconian sentences” and “a deeply disturbing setback to Egypt’s transition.”
Yet just one day before the verdicts, Kerry was facilitating Egypt’s transition. In a news conference in Cairo after meeting with el-Sissi, Kerry signaled that the United States would soon release suspended military aid. “I am absolutely confident we will get on track here,” Kerry said before adding that he’s confident the United States would soon lift a suspension on the shipment of 10 Apache helicopters.
Kerry also rightly raised the repression issues with el-Sissi, emphasizing the importance of universal rights, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. But clearly, the Obama administration’s cold calculus is that with Iraq and Syria disintegrating into anarchy, and with ongoing negotiations over Iran’s potential nuclear weapons program a priority, the U.S.-Egypt relationship is really only about security.
Security is no small matter in the volatile region, especially as it pertains to policing Sinai, keeping the Suez Canal open and upholding the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. But the United States should also use its aid to advance values, and the Obama administration should think long and hard if resuming the relationship without Egyptian concessions on human rights will once again mean America will stand on the wrong side of history.
To be sure, there is no guarantee that holding the funds would free the journalists or improve Egypt’s human rights record. In fact, it could backfire. El-Sissi already has said he would not intervene to free the journalists.
But the Obama administration needs to reassess, not reflexively renew, its ties with Egypt. Congress should weigh in, too, and press the administration to clarify U.S. objectives. Shoveling money to a repressive regime may bring some security benefits, but in the long run Egypt, and the United States, will be more secure if Egypt’s regime respects basic rights and earns the support of its people.