Over the weekend an Egypt court found Al-Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed guilty on charges of operating in Egypt without a press licence and of ‘spreading false news’. Greste and Fahmy were given sentences of three years in prison; Mohamed was given three years and six months. While Fahmy and Mohamed have been returned to prison, the consequences for Greste, deported from Egypt last February, are also serious.
Greste won’t be able to travel to any country that has an extradition treaty with Egypt, a fatal impediment to his career as a foreign correspondent. He also now has a criminal record.
It had been hoped that the re-trial would find all three innocent of the charges, after their earlier trial had found them guilty and sentenced Greste and Fahmy to seven years in prison and Mohamed to ten years. Greste has called on Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to grant all three a pardon. The prospects seem slim.
It may well be the case that this was part of the plan all along: that the court would find the three guilty to save the blushes of the Egyptian judiciary, and then Sisi would show his magnanimity by pardoning them.
But because Greste, the only Westerner of the three, is no longer in an Egyptian jail, Sisi will feel less pressure to act; he is hardly likely to spare much thought for Greste’s career.
Indeed these days, Sisi is getting decidedly mixed messages from Western governments. The Al-Jazeera verdict is part of a much broader assault on press and other freedoms in Egypt being mounted by the Sisi regime. In the same week as Greste and his colleagues were found guilty, Sisi introduced new draconian anti-terrorism legislation. In addition to the establishment of special fast-track courts for terrorism offences, and new protections for military and police officers that use violence against terror suspects, the law also imposes fines of between US$25,000 and US$64,000 for journalists who contradict official accounts of militant attacks.
One human rights activist, Jamal Eid, tweeted that the law marked the establishment of a 'republic of darkness'.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued a statement over the weekend saying that she was ‘dismayed’ by the Greste verdict. But she has said nothing about the implication of the new anti-terror law for press and other freedoms in Egypt. The US State Department did at least express concern 'that some measures in Egypt's new anti-terrorism law could have a significant detrimental impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms.' But the general pattern of US relations with Egypt since the July 2013 coup that brought Sisi to power has been one of gradual warming. In March of this year, for example, the US resumed military aid to Egypt.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has also praised Sisi on a number of occasions, including in his National Security Statement last February, when he singled out Sisi’s call for a ‘religious revolution’ in Islam.
The truth is, however, that Sisi’s heavy-handed policies in Egypt will create more radicalism and militancy than it defeats. Recently, Shadi Hamid did an excellent job at summarising in Foreign Policy how counter-productive Sisi’s policies have been. Hamid’s piece should be required reading for Western policymakers as they consider their approach to Egypt.
I know it's easy to be critical from the outside, and there are few good levers for influencing the Egyptian regime. But at the very least the US and other countries, including Australia, should be delivering a strong and consistent message to the Egyptian regime, and not just when one of our own gets caught up in the regime’s repressive net.
This is not just a moral issue for the West, it is also a practical one. Western policymakers rightly condemned the former Maliki Government in Iraq for its repressive and discriminatory policies against the Sunni minority – policies that paved the way for ISIS to roll into Mosul and other Sunni towns and cities virtually unopposed.
Yet remove the sectarian dimension, and Sisi’s policies in Egypt don’t look all that different. Under Sisi, the jihadist insurgency in Sinai has already worsened and has seen partisans of ISIS raise the movement’s black flag on the peninsula. Meanwhile, Sisi’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is driving younger members toward militancy.
Some Western policymakers will argue that sometimes you need tough measures to defeat terrorism and militancy. This is true. But it is also true that an approach that is all stick rarely ever works. Even the former Mubarak regime came to understand that.
The Sisi regime may eventually come to that realisation too. But for the moment at least, this seems unlikely. As Hamid notes towards the end of his piece: ‘when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mohamed Azazy.