Mask of democracy slips in Egypt

opinion June 27, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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Long jail sentences handed down to three Al Jazeera journalists should be a wake-up call for the international community

The deep divides in Egyptian society have been laid bare by the government’s refusal to commute death sentences handed down to 183 people accused of attacking a security outpost in 2013. Embarrassed by news reports of the domestic conflict, the country’s rulers also decided to come down hard on local and foreign journalists.
This week a Cairo court convicted three Al Jazeera journalists on charges of conspiring with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to report distorted news that supposedly undermined the state. The Brotherhood was the dominant party in a democratically elected government that was overthrown by the military last summer. The court sentenced other foreign journalists in absentia. 
During the trial the prosecutors presented no real evidence that the journalists had done anything wrong. For evidence of “crime” they showed images of one journalist’s family vacationing in the Luxor, in the north of the country.
Despite the lack of any actual evidence that the three Al Jazeera journalists were in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood, or that their reports were inaccurate, Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy were found guilty of terrorism offences and sentenced to seven years in prison, and Baher Mohamed to 10 years. 
It seems the judiciary was determined to finish off a job started by the executive branch of Egypt’s government. 
The manner in which the case was handled is deeply disturbing. The international community must condemn this blatant perversion of justice in the strongest terms. 
With the verdict, this military-dominated regime has not only sent a chilling and intimidating message to journalists covering Egypt, but also to the country’s people as well. 
If the Egyptian government and courts think these tactics will succeed in silencing opponents, they need to think again. This week’s stage-managed effort – from the charges to the evidence offered up in court – was nothing less than a major embarrassment for Egypt. The absurdity of their actions has turned a fresh administration that is seeking legitimacy into a dictatorial thug in the eyes of the world. 
The fact that it seems oblivious to the criticism – and to calls both at home and abroad to make good on its promise of fair and democratic rule – shows that the new leadership in Cairo is not to be trusted. And that should be a point of concern for any country that wants to do business and make diplomatic deals with Egypt.
Be it the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia or Thailand, states should realise that the new rulers in Cairo can’t be trusted to uphold even basic judicial norms. So deal with them at your peril. Of course, the international community should have recognised this much earlier. Can one really place any trust in leaders who have no qualms about gunning down their own citizens and unabashedly rigging an election so they can claim that democracy has returned to Egypt?
America, as a reputed champion of free speech, could do more to aid the situation. Washington’s recent agreement to resume its annual $1.3 billion in military aid does not help. 
Some analysts say the verdict against the journalists was fuelled by a diplomatic spat between Egypt and Qatar, Al Jazeera’s home base. Qatar is also a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Even if this were the case, for Cairo to take its anger out on journalists for doing their job is simply absurd.