“Shocking, appalling, preposterously unjust.”
These are excerpts of angry global reactions to the harsh prison sentences of three journalists for Al-Jazeera English by an Egyptian court. Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Australian Peter Greste were sentenced to seven years in jail on charges of aiding terrorists and endangering national security, based merely on ludicrous pieces of evidence. While the verdict is shocking, it actually fits in with the general attitude and outlook of the new Egyptian leadership. Sisi’s new Egyptian Republic is shaped on terms and conditions like power, prestige, and authority. An old Nasserite slogan has resurfaced, the “Dignity of the State.” In that context, the new leadership in Cairo views journalists, media, human rights advocates, and even revolutionaries with suspicion. They are all a threat to its authority and therefore there is no room for dissent.
Despite that the journalists’ case was raised during Secretary Kerry’s meeting with Egyptian president Sisi, the verdict proves that the Egyptian authorities are unswayed. While Egypt’s foreign ministry has expressed its objection to foreign criticism of Egypt’s judiciary and its rulings, President Al-Sisi has rejected calls from the United States and other Western governments that he pardon or commute the sentences of three Al-Jazeera journalists. At best, the Egyptian authority may try to “explain,” or “justify “the verdict under the pretext of an “independent judiciary,” and argue that president Sisi “cannot pressure or influence the judges.” In return, they expect tough language from Washington and other Western cities, but that not much more. In short, they think they can weather the storm, and they are probably right. Looking at the broader regional context, with Syria, Iraq, and Libya in meltdown, and with strong backing from most of the Gulf states, it will be hard for Western countries to press Egypt on issues of freedom and democracy. Who will want to burn bridges at such a critical juncture in this Middle East turmoil? Probably no one.
The strategy being implemented by Egypt’s new president is two-fold. First, there is a show of great pragmatism, even loyalty, to the United States on regional security and foreign policy. This, in his view, may help tame any outside criticism regarding domestic policies. Second, there is a focus on the economy and social security, especially for the poor and disfranchised Egyptians, in order to garner and maintain solid support from an apolitical Egyptian public. This two-pronged strategy can wedge a gap between democracy advocates and the public while concurrently evading international pressure.
Sooner or later, however, President Sisi and his team may discover that their perfect plan is not that perfect. Turning the clock back is not as easy as it seems. Even if foreign countries swallow the verdict, and hope the case is crushed under a future appeal court, the domestic front will not tolerate the squashing of democratic values for long.
The future of Egypt will emerge out of two possible tracks. First, President Sisi may fail to improve the economy as promised. Egypt is facing long-standing socio-economic grievances that will not be solved by only rhetoric and good intentions. Indicators such as inflation, unemployment, GDP, and economic growth paint a gloomy picture. Sisi can temporarily distract the public by going cycling to campaign for fuel economy, but Egyptians are looking for substantive results. Furthermore, Egypt’s economy depends heavily on tourism, but who will visit a country with a tainted justice system? American actress Mia Farrow’s tweet has summed this sad fact that is painfully ignored by the Egyptian leadership.
The upheaval of the last three years may push many Egyptians to opt for stability at the expense of democratic values. Nonetheless, impatience will grow if things don’t improve. No one, including Sisi, can avoid a fate similar to Mubarak and Morsi if they don’t improve the economy. The public may give President Sisi a few months of breathing space, but ultimately they will demand results. If he fails to deliver, the next revolutionary wave is not an outlandish possibility. Even if we assume that Sisi succeeds against all odds in achieving his goals and provides stability and prosperity, Egyptians will then shift focus to more “luxurious” demands like freedom and equality. Democratic aspirations have not died in Egypt. Egyptians still value equality, freedom, and justice. The climate of fear is only a temporarily shield against criticism of the new leadership.
Watching Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and his tearful fiancée after the court verdict is reminiscent of a scene from a classic Egyptian movie, “The Karnak.” The movie highlighted the depth of injustice and obsession of the Nasser regime in a story about a young couple wrongly accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Nasser’s successor Sadat welcomed the movie as part of his PR campaign and as an advocate for freedom. Sadat later lost his popularity, not just because of his peace deal with Israel, but also because of his oppressive policies. The champion of peace and freedom went on to order the arrest of nearly all his opponents. A few weeks later, he was assassinated. Months afterwards, his successor Mubarak, again promised freedom and released all the prisoners in an effort to win back the public. We all know how Mubarak ended up.
Egyptian rulers have always suffered from political amnesia. They promise freedom, then later forget their promises and instead offer up many pretexts. Just as the Karnak movie is inextricably linked to Nasser and Sadat, this Al-Jazeera trial will become tattooed onto Sisi’s era.