Dictators Change, Things Stay the Same

On Monday, an Egyptian court convicted three Al Jazeera journalists on charges including conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood and broadcasting false news. Two of the journalists received seven year sentences while the third received a ten year sentence with the additional three years being added for possessing a spent bullet casing that had been found during a protest. The convicted include Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste, foreign journalists from Canada and Australia, and Baher Mohamed, a domestic journalist from Egypt.

The ruling received backlash from prominent government officials, human rights organizations and news agencies worldwide as there is no public evidence to support the court’s decisions. The move is seen as a scare tactic to prevent journalists from reporting on issues that criticize the state. The MENA region is viewed as a hostile environment for journalists and reporters, with Turkey and Iran having the most imprisoned journalists in the world.

Over the last few months, Egypt’s actions have been highly detrimental to the functioning of its civil society. On Saturday, a court in Egypt sentenced 183 Muslim Brotherhoods supporters to death on charges ranging from sabotage, terrorizing civilians and murder during the protests in Cairo in the largest mass sentence in Egypt in recent times. Earlier this month, the courts also sentenced Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent social activist, to fifteen years in prison. Last year, Bassem Youssef’s political satire show was censored, and he was forced to abruptly cancel his show earlier this month. The latest sentences are a continuation of the repressive crackdown on opposition to the current Egyptian government, and demonstrate the state’s dangerous expansion of control. 

Censorship has long existed in Egypt, with former president Hosni Mubarak enforcing tight controls on media through content restriction and Internet blackouts, but the recent events are especially troubling as the Arab Spring had offered the promise of a free and democratic civil society in the state. After Egypt democratically elected a president for the first time in 2012, Egypt’s Freedom House rating improved to “Partly Free”, but recent events have proven otherwise. Its ratings have been downgraded to “Not Free” President Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power last year by the military.

The US has been sending mixed messages to its on-again-off-again ally. While the White house called on Egypt to “pardon these individuals or commute their sentences” for immediate release, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the US would lift its freeze on $1.3 billion of annual military aid to Egypt. Egypt has been a strong regional ally to the US in the past, but it is crucial that the US remain critical of Egypt’s authoritarian tactics to ensure that the state does not continue to slide toward its repression. 

The US cannot ignore these rights violations if it still hopes to support Egyptian democracy, but it also cannot afford to give up its foothold in the region while chaos reigns in countries like Iraq and Syria. Although Kerry stated that the verdicts were a setback to Egypt’s transition to democracy, it is unlikely that the US will take further actions that may upset the relationship between the two countries at this critical time. Democratization is an important foreign policy goal of the US but the costs of losing Egypt as a regional ally are too high for any significant pressure to be put on Sisi.

The current relationship between the US and Egypt is beginning to resemble the past relationship with Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. The US continuously provided military aid to Mubarak’s regime despite his human rights violations and repressive ruling tactics and in return the US continued to enjoy its priority access to the Suez Canal, Egyptian air space, and other forms of cooperation. The advancement of democracy was codified into US foreign policy in 2007, but in the case of Egypt, this goal has continuously been neglected in fear of upsetting the comfortable relationship that the two states mutually enjoyed.

The US must be willing to take more hardline stances beyond issuing statements if it wants to see Egypt move towards democratization. If the US continues to normalize relations, it is likely that the two countries will slip back into their old, comfortable positions with no substantial progress being made to protect Egyptian civil society.