The autocratic bent of Egypt’s regime has over the past year been advertised most widely by its imprisonment of three Al Jazeera journalists.
The charges – of aiding a terrorist group – were obviously farcical, the trial conducted with all the finesse of a kangaroo court. Now one of the journalists, the Australian Peter Greste, is free, after serving 400 days of a seven-year sentence. The release of another, Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian, is rumoured.
With this show of clemency, Egypt’s President hopes to spike the guns of international disapproval that have been aimed at his administration. But the fate of one journalist – Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian national – remains unclear, and the breadth and severity of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s repression of the Egyptian people mean that Western powers should not consider the slate wiped clean.
Most aspects of Egyptian public life bear the imprimatur of a government that is passing repressive laws at a rate unmatched even during the reign of the dictator deposed in 2011, that of Hosni Mubarak. Freedom of assembly and speech have been drastically curtailed.
The Muslim Brotherhood, whose leader, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted from the presidency by Mr Sisi’s 2013 coup, faces particular persecution. More than 800 unarmed Brotherhood protesters were killed as part of that upheaval. Such ferocity shows no sign of abating: yesterday a further 183 Brotherhood members, found guilty of the murder of 13 policemen, were sentenced to death. Liberals suffer too: organisers of the 2011 Tahrir Square revolt languish in prison on trumped-up charges; only a week ago, during marches to mark the revolution’s fourth anniversary, 18 protesters were shot dead by police, including a female activist.
Despite all of this, Western powers seem all too ready to return to a “business as usual” relationship with Mr Sisi. Yes, it is to the President’s credit that he has started to reform the stagnant Egyptian economy. Overgenerous fuel subsidies have been cut, large-scale infrastructure projects are under way and tourism, which has slumped since 2011, shows signs of picking up. With much of the Middle East – from Libya to Iraq to Syria – riven by conflict, the impulse to settle for security wherever it can be found exerts an understandable pull on Western foreign policy.
Nevertheless, both the US and Britain have sold the Egyptian people short by failing to use their leverage to stem the tide of Mr Sisi’s aggression. The Obama administration has recently won approval to fully resume US military aid to Egypt – without any requirements made of Mr Sisi’s government in return. In early January, the largest British trade delegation in 10 years visited Cairo. With such concessions made already, yesterday’s call by the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, for the release of political detainees and relaxation of “restrictions on civil society” had all the weight of a feather duster.
Such spinelessness is not just troubling on a moral level. Mr Sisi’s crackdown on political freedom will, in the long run, very likely alienate the Egyptian people and lead to renewed instability. Mubarak’s decades in power should have taught the West that much. The assault on Islamist sentiment, in particular, is likely to backfire, and push more Brotherhood supporters into the arms of extremist groups. Surging violence in the Sinai region testifies to this already. So much for “security”.
Peter Greste may be free. Much of Egypt remains in lockdown. While celebrating one man’s release, the West should remember to focus on the thousands left behind.