The Injustice in Egypt’s Courts
By ROBIN WRIGHT
Egypt is, again, a dictatorship, proven by gross injustice and absurdly counterproductive behavior in the year since its latest military coup. Just weeks after sentencing some 1,200 people to death in mass trials, the judiciary has sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to seven years in prison, allegedly for supporting terrorism and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood by interviewing its members. Evidence in the trial was flimsy to the point of laughable. The sentences were tragically ridiculous. One journalist received an additional three years for being in possession of a single spent bullet. As Amnesty International noted, journalism is not a crime.
The judicial decision was a defiant snub of the United States and a slap in the face to Secretary of State John Kerry just a day after he met with Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, in Cairo and promised that the flow of U.S. military equipment would resume. Some of the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid and equipment has been frozen since shortly after then-Gen. Sisi led a coup last July against the democratically elected government of Mohammed Morsi.
Secretary Kerry was so angered by the announcement that, even in the midst of emergency diplomacy on Iraq, he called Egypt’s foreign minister to complain. In Baghdad on Monday, Mr. Kerry said at a press conference that Egypt’s move was “chilling” and “draconian.”
The White House later called on President Sisi to commute the journalists’ sentences or pardon the three—Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed—so they can be immediately released. It also called for clemency for “all politically motivated sentences,” an indirect reference to the widespread detention of critics and rights activists. National security adviser Susan Rice tweeted on Tuesday “Appalled by senseless verdicts against Al Jazeera English journalists in Egypt.” She added the hashtag being used worldwide by those pushing for the journalists’ release, #FreeAJStaff. Ms. Rice rarely uses social media, especially to publicly criticize a foreign government. The governments of Australia and Canada have also condemned the sentences.
Mr. Sisi would be wise to let the journalists go. But even if he frees those three, hundreds remain in detention and other trials await. Ultimately, Egypt’s conduct will be costly. It may be the most populous Arab country and the most strategic in North Africa. But Cairo needs credibility to deal with staggering economic problems, which will require foreign income from tourism and investment.
Showing utter disregard for basic rights is no way for Cairo to prove its claim of transitioning back to democratic rule—or convincing the outside world that Egypt is a safe place to travel or to invest.
Robin Wright is a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She is on Twitter: @wrightr.