The Al Jazeera trial: first they came for the Muslim Brotherhood...
… then they came for the journalists accused of being in league with the Muslim Brotherhood.
And next? Former members of the Muslim Brotherhood? Friends of Muslim Brotherhood supporters? After that? Start arresting people who retweet tweets about the Muslim Brotherhood? What about locking up everyone who voted for Mohamed Morsi’s party in the 2012 election? That would be another 13,230,131 arrests to be going on with. Is the aim of Egypt’s post-Morsi crackdown to turn the country into one giant jail, with just the army and the military’s “purest” supporters left at liberty? To borrow the famous Jaws line, it looks like Egypt’s gonna need a bigger prison …
The Al Jazeera verdicts - roundly condemned by foreign governments, media organisations and human rights groups - are just the tip of the iceberg. Since the unseating (by military coup?) of Morsi a year ago, we’ve had hundreds of people sentenced to death, thousands arrested (estimates range between 16,000 and 41,000), and at least one secret military prison set up where torture is rampant.
Egypt’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood, anti-Salafist and anti-democracy activist purges have reached such a fever pitch that surely even traditional backers of Egyptian military rulers are starting to squirm. Well, sort of. After the jailing of the Al Jazeera journalists, John Kerry said the sentences were “chilling” and “draconian”, and the White House chimed in with its own condemnation. But only a few hours before Peter Greste et al were getting their hefty sentences it emerged that the USA was unfreezing military aid to Egypt (aid cut off last year after the violent ousting of ... the elected president Mohamed Morsi). Though the USA chides Egypt in public, behind the scenes it's still arranging mammoth arms deals - just as it did in the Mubarak era.
Meanwhile, over in Australia the prime minister Tony Abbott made a few headlines of his own ahead of the Al Jazeera verdict by saying he’d personally intervened with President Sisi on behalf of Peter Greste, who is an Australian national. Good, you might think. But Abbott also let it be known that he’d “congratulated” Sisi “on the work that the new government of Egypt had done to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood.” Amazing. Did Mr Abbott also congratulate the military officers who ordered the mass killing of mostly pro-Morsi supporters at the sit-in at the Rabaa al-Adawiyah mosque in Cairo last August? I shudder to think.
As I’ve said before, there’s a pattern in Egypt’s modern history of the military positioning itself as the “indispensable” bulwark against an internal or external threat. Its greatest trick came last year when it was apparently able to fool enough people into believing that the country’s deeply-entrenched and virtually-unaccountable military-industrial complex was really the people’s champion, and somehow the country’s true defender of the 2011 revolution. Quite a feat. And, frighteningly enough, the military’s bloody takeover a year ago has indeed been accepted in a “business-almost-as-usual” fashion by numerous governments - including the UK’s.
To return to the Al Jazeera case - an Amnesty trial observer at the 12 sessions (spread out over many months) has described scenes of “complete ineptitude” during the proceedings. And Huffington Post UK has compiled nine of the more bizarre examples of the court’s idiosyncratic evidential process (showing irrelevant clips from a Greste Panorama documentary about Somalia, mystifying everyone in court by playing Gotye’s song Somebody That I Used To Know, etc etc). A shoddy trial in more ways than one.
Journalism is not a crime, but in Egypt it now seems to be tantamount to that. Egypt is already incredibly dangerous for journalists (behind only Syria and Iraq, according to the CPJ), and death / jail are becoming major occupational hazards for those daring to report on protests or indeed any anti-government activity. And the clampdown goes on. Though little noticed because of the high-profile Al Jazeera trial, this week has also seen the jailing of a reporter from a US-based Coptic TV station - Mohamed Hegazy - seemingly for doing no more than report on anti-Coptic sectarian violence in the Minya Governorate of Egypt.
Where will all this end? One Cairo-based journalist who was in touch with me immediately after the announcement of the Al Jazeera verdict described his reaction. It was: “shocking, depressing and frightening”. That more or less sums it up. So the question remains: who are they coming for next?
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.