Commentary

The Al Jazeera Trial and the New Egypt

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

The passing of a seven-year prison sentence on three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt has sent the regional press reeling. Characterizing the verdict as “shocking” and “vindictive,” most commentaries and editorials have urged Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to pardon the journalists. For his part, the president has said that he will not interfere with the judiciary. But some suspect that Sisi is unwilling to do anything because the verdict suits his overall objectives aimed at stifling the press in Egypt. Others are quick to point out that Sisi would do well not to take for granted his current goodwill among the Egyptians.

Expressing “shock beyond belief,” a Gulf Times editorial casts doubt on the Egyptian government’s commitment to a free press: “Besides being an attack on the cherished principles of accepted behaviour, the verdict also proves beyond doubt the fact that this Egyptian government has scant respect for the media and other components that make for a modern civilized state....Politics was clearly the reason why Egypt went after the journalists. The fact that they represented a media organisation established by Qatar was something Egypt couldn’t tolerate. They were held at Egypt’s notorious Tora Prison for six months, in a case that has drawn criticism from Western governments and human rights groups.”

The Peninsula editorial goes further, calling the verdict “vindictive” and “a travesty of justice,” which, for the editorial staff, “is a mild term to describe the prison sentences awarded to three journalists of Aljazeera English in Egypt....The sentences prove that the rot in the judicial system of the most populous state in the Middle East has only worsened after the Arab Spring....Freedom of the Fourth Estate, an anathema in most authoritarian regimes, is alien in Egypt. Though the number of media outlets including newspapers and television channels is large, objectivity in journalism is sacrificed to the whims of the state....Convictions and death sentences based on mass trials had discredited Egypt’s judicial system. The latest verdict has once again laid bare the pedestrian attitude to jurisprudence of the Egyptian state.”

There are those who believe that the trial and sentencing of the Al Jazeera journalists provides a golden opportunity for El Sisi to burnish his credentials as a statesman and democratic leader. For example, a Jordan Times editorial urges Egypt’s new leadership to turn a new page by pardoning the journalists: “Freedom of the press is a basic pillar of democracies worldwide. It must be guarded and promoted as long as it is reasonable and does not incite civil strife, perpetration of crimes or disturbance of public order. The three condemned Egyptian journalists did not commit any noticeable crime.... There is now only one way to end this threat to the image and reputation of the country and its judicial system, and that is to pardon the three journalists....The new leadership in Egypt surely wants to open a new page in the history of his country. What better way than by showing respect for freedom of expression and pardoning the journalists in question?”

There is a sense also that the recent trial and the verdicts have only worsened the politicization of the courts in Egypt, which, according to The National editorial staff, does not bode well for the future of the country: “The death sentences of 180 Muslim Brotherhood figures upheld over the weekend, with a further 500 sentenced to life in jail and the long jail terms handed to three Al Jazeera journalists on Monday, contribute to an atmosphere of judicial politicization that the presidency of Abdel Fattah El Sisi hoped to rein in....sentencing journalists to jail for doing their job is counterproductive. And the court case against them, littered as it was with errors, raises questions about the fairness of the judicial process in that and other recent cases....Making sure the courts aren’t politicized – and are seen to be fair – is one of the most important tasks for the new president. He could start with these recent trials.”

But, according to the Daily News Egypt’s Nervana Mahmoud, Egypt’s president is unlikely to do much to undo the verdicts passed or to offer a pardon, since the outcome fits comfortably within El Sisi’s general outlook and vision for the future: “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.”

This sentiment seems to be shared by others, including Toby Cadman, who, in an op-ed for Al Jazeera, expressed the view that what we are witnessing now is “the dawn of autocracy” in Egypt: “Freedom of speech is not just important; it is essential to any democracy. A free press does not simply report on issues of the day, it is there to ensure that governments are held accountable to its people and that the people have a voice. The decision issued on June 23 in Egypt is a further erosion of that accountability. In fact, it is the last nail in the coffin for democracy in Egypt....The trial and subsequent decision to convict shows just how far along the road to an authoritarian state Egypt has reverted....The international community must raise its voice and diplomatic relations must be severed until the judgments are overturned and the journalists are released. The US must immediately freeze military aid. The European Union must immediately withdraw its support and publicly condemn the recent verdicts.”

But Sisi should be aware, cautions The Peninsula in a recent editorial, lest he become a victim of his own success: “The decision to jail the journalists is a miscalculated gamble and will only boomerang on Sisi. His government lacks legitimacy as May’s election was a farce and also due to the draconian crackdown on opposition and the blatant disdain with which he is treating international criticism of his actions. Instead of trying to earn the goodwill of foreign countries and the media, the government is focused on punishing its opponents....There is concern about the future of Egypt due to the latest developments. Sisi is upending all that the country has gained from the revolution. The sad truth is that many Egyptians still support him, but it will be foolish to take this support for granted.”


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