Egypt Jails Al-Jazeera Journalists

 

Over the weekend, an Egyptian court sentenced three Al-Jazeera journalists to three years in prison. One of them, Peter Greste, an Australian citizen, is back in Australia and was sentenced in absentia. One of the others, Mohamed Fahmy, is a Canadian citizen.

The charges against them are directly related to their journalistic activities, including not having proper licensing and reporting false news damaging to public security. I believe these charges were motivated by Al-Jazeera’s reporting that was favorable toward the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian President El-Sisi has said he favors deporting rather than jailing the foreigners, but will not interfere with the courts.

According to article 155 of the 2014 Egypt constitution, the president of the republic may issue a pardon or reduce a sentence after consultation with the cabinet. The article reads: “General amnesty may only be granted by virtue of a law, ratified by the majority of the members of the House of Representatives”.

Egypt has been without a parliament since June 2012 when a court dissolved the lower chamber after ruling it was not constitutionally elected. In regards to deportation, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi issued in 2014 a presidential decree that allows foreign nationals to continue their pretrial detention or post-trial prison sentences in their home countries.

[…]

In June 2014 … El-Sisi said that Egypt’s authorities “will not interfere in judicial matters” following the first trial where the defendants were sentenced to between seven and ten years in jail. El-Sisi also said he did not wish to see the foreign journalists prosecuted through a criminal process, and would have preferred for them to have been deported.

The Canadian government is working diplomatically to have Fahmy returned to Canada (he is being represented by Amal Clooney, George’s wife). There is added political pressure on these diplomatic efforts due Canada’s ongoing federal election.

The British ambassador took a more direct approach, saying — in Arabic and on local Egyptian media — that he is “concerned that today’s ruling will undermine confidence in the basis of Egypt’s stability, both in Egypt and abroad.

I understand that support for Islamist groups comes from — or gets funneled through its home in Doha — and Al-Jazeera is sometimes used to spread agitprop for Islamist causes. However, I’m a strong believer in a free press and don’t think these journalists should be jailed.

Published in Foreign Policy
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  1. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Zafar:

    James Gawron:In Tehran, for at least six months the Mullahs could have been brought down by a single speech by the American President.

    Fantasy.

    I agree with you that this is fantasy. A short blog post written at the time by an acquaintance of mine — an American political pollster who like me was living in Istanbul — is a very good summary of my views about this. “Successful democratic transitions are not spontaneous,” she points out. “They are planned and this one was clearly not planned.”

    Likewise, the conception of the timeline and the nature of events in Egypt here (expressed in many comments) seems divorced from reality to me. Egypt had a series of coups: The Egyptian military removed Mubarak. It isn’t at all clear that they did so in response to anything the US said. You can call that a “democratic transition,” but the technical word for that is “a coup.” The Egyptian military permitted elections to be held: that the MB would win the elections was fairly predictable; it requires really Middle-Eastern levels of conspiracy-mindedness to think the CIA rigged the election. The MB was and had long been the most organized political force in Egypt.

    As for “democratic transitions,” as soon as Morsi arrogated to himself unlimited powers (including the power to legislate without oversight), he lost democratic legitimacy. At that point, if you’re a Westerner who thinks, “We should support democracy, even if we don’t like the outcome,” consistency would demand a contra-Morsi stance — unless you think democracy means “elected dictatorship, one election and done.”

    If people felt it made sense for the military to intervene to bring down Mubarak, there’s no logical reason they should have felt otherwise about the military bringing down Morsi. Roughly the same sequence of events took place: The military removed Mubarak after massive protests and claimed to be acting on behalf of the people; they then removed Morsi after massive protests and claimed to be acting on behalf of the people. 

    No one who knew much about Egypt ever had a huge expectation that post-(first)-coup Egypt was apt to look very different from pre-coup Egypt. As he very often does, Adam Garfinkle got it largely right. (But he failed to anticipate just how brutal Sisi would be.)

    If you think, “We should support anyone who was elected,” then we should support Sisi. Because he went on to be elected. No, no one argues that election was free and fair. But if the sole way we measure “democratic legitimacy” is by means of the question, “Was he elected?” than we should support him. (Obviously, it isn’t the sole way.)

    If the argument is, “We should have supported the Brotherhood even after Morsi arrogated to himself dictatorial powers to prove to Islamists that you can come to power peacefully, through elections — so democracy works,” I’d reply that this hardly offers much encouragement to those who aren’t Islamists. Backing dictators to prove that elections work takes us to a contradictory place.

    If the argument is, “Sisi’s brutality has greatly fueled the ISIS/hardcore jihadi narrative,” I fully agree. (It wasn’t the coup so much as the massacre at Rabaa.) I would also agree that by any reasonable or measurable standard, Sisi has been a catastrophe for human rights in Egypt.

    • #61
  2. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    Zafar:

    drlorentz:

    …what about Egypt makes it suited to democracy?

    It has people in it, and the people seem to want liberty. Otherwise there would be no demand for democracy at all, but there is.

    A necessary, but not sufficient, condition. I want a Bugatti Veyron. It takes more than want to getting. Wants have prerequisites. I also note the use of the phrase seem to want – a weak endorsement.

    Zafar: Wrt the values embodied in the Bill of Rights – why was it necessary to tack these amendments onto the Constitution? If they had been agreed upon values, common assumptions if you will, the amendments would not have been necessary.

    I suppose you could say that about any founding document or law. Why bother to have a written constitution at all? I leave that as an exercise to the reader. Suffice it to say that people often write down things that they agree upon. Just because they’re written down doesn’t meant they are not widely held.

    Zafar: Insisting that Middle Eastern countries improve their respect for individual liberty before engaging in the democratic process is not just putting the cart before the horse, it’s hypocritical.

    How is it hypocritical? The good people of England earned their liberties over centuries, from the Magna Carta, through the Glorious Revolution, up to today. It did not spring fully formed after centuries of despotism. What in the history of Egypt has prepared Egyptians to take on the responsibilities of self-rule?

    • #62
  3. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    drlorentz:

    Suffice it to say that people often write down things that they agree upon.

    The point of writing things down is that if it’s in black and white there’s no ambiguity about what we mean (or a lot less).  So we all agree about what we are agreeing about or to.

    How is it hypocritical? The good people of England earned their liberties over centuries, from the Magna Carta, through the Glorious Revolution, up to today. It did not spring fully formed after centuries of despotism.

    Indeed.  It was a messy, drawn out process. 

    Dismissing the Arab Spring because it’s messy and drawn out and we don’t see immediate results that we like is judging its success or failure by a different set of measures.

    What in the history of Egypt has prepared Egyptians to take on the responsibilities of self-rule?

    Unfortunately there is no history prefect handing out ‘ready for democracy’ passes to aspiring societies. 

    Remember: messy, drawn out – and let’s add, unknown territory.

    • #63
  4. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    If people felt it made sense for the military to intervene to bring down Mubarak, there’s no logical reason they should have felt otherwise about the military bringing down Morsi..

    The difference lies in what followed.

    In 2012 (after the coup that removed Mubarak) Morsi ran against the guy who had been Mubarak’s Prime Minister.  There was a real contest between the two dominant political viewpoints in Egypt, and Morsi only won by a tiny margin.  The outcome had genuine legitimacy – though as you say Morsi squandered that with an illegal power grab.

    In 2014 (after the coup that removed Morsi) the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood was banned.  This meant no real contest, a Mubarak era level of electoral fraud (Sisi got over 96% of the vote) and an outcome utterly lacking in democratic legitimacy. 

    Criticising the second outcome is not arguing for Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood (I wouldn’t vote for either). It’s arguing that a system which actually reflects the (many and changing) political opinions of the country, even if I don’t like a lot of them, is an Important Good.

    Sisi’s governance failures now seem unlikely to be punished in the ballot box.  So what alternative does that leave? We’re creating another Algeria.

    (Wrt the Egyptian Army acting without a nod of approval from the US – it’s possible, but I find it unlikely. ) 

    • #64
  5. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Zafar: (Wrt the Egyptian Army acting without a nod of approval from the US – it’s possible, but I find it unlikely. )

    The Saudis sponsored that one. We just stood there blinking, wondering what the hell to do — I don’t think we were pushing for it; it was pretty embarrassing for us and left us in a mighty awkward position.

    As with all these arms-sales relationships, I’m sure — very sure, in fact; this is the subject I did my doctoral research on — that we stopped selling arms for a while in mild protest, hoping to urge Sisi to restore democracy or at least look as if he might — but then gave in to the universal logic governing arms sales: If we didn’t, he’d go to our competitor, and then we’d have even less influence over what he does. That’s the way it always works.

    • #65
  6. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Well, I guess I’ll have to adjust my view :-(

    • #66
  7. American Abroad Thatcher
    American Abroad
    @AmericanAbroad

    This is just a bad story all around.  Morsi is terrible.  El-Sisi is better.  But it is never nice to overthrow an elected leader, no matter how unfair the election.

    Allende was terrible.  Pinochet was better.  But the US is still viewed as the villain in this story even though Chile is now the richest country in South America and not a “socialist paradise” like Cuba or Venezuela.

    So at the very least, we should at least pressure Egypt and El-Sisi not to imprison journalists who really don’t pose a threat to Egypt.  At least that way we could pretend Egypt is moving towards democracy.

    • #67
  8. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    Zafar: It was a messy, drawn out process. Dismissing the Arab Spring because it’s messy and drawn out and we don’t see immediate results that we like is judging its success or failure by a different set of measures.

    It’s fair to judge the process for what it is and for what it has accomplished. Results matter. Also, it’s misleading to refer to the Arab Spring et seq. as a drawn out process while comparing it to the evolution of democracy in England.  There’s a big difference between 5 years and 800 years. And there were plenty of opportunities for just complaints about the English process along the way. In short, Egypt is back in the year 1220. They’ve a long road ahead; they don’t get to jump the line.

    Zafar: Unfortunately there is no history prefect handing out ‘ready for democracy’ passes to aspiring societies.

    Exactly. They have to earn it. That takes many years and, sadly, probably piles of corpses. Holding one or two elections does not a democracy make. The notion that Egypt was suddenly a democracy because Morsi was elected is silly. They will be ready for democracy if and when they adjust their values to comport with those of other successful democracies. It may take decades, centuries, or never happen. The only thing you can say with confidence is that democracy does not work everywhere.

    • #68
  9. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Claire,

    Likewise, the conception of the timeline and the nature of events in Egypt here (expressed in many comments) seems divorced from reality to me. Egypt had a series of coups: The Egyptian military removed Mubarak. It isn’t at all clear that they did so in response to anything the US said. You can call that a “democratic transition,” but the technical word for that is “a coup.” The Egyptian military permitted elections to be held: that the MB would win the elections was fairly predictable; it requires really Middle-Eastern levels of conspiracy-mindedness to think the CIA rigged the election. The MB was and had long been the most organized political force in Egypt.

    Claire,

    You don’t feel that the American President stating “Mubarak must go” had anything to do with it. After 6 months of million plus civilian demonstrations in Tehran the American President had nothing to say. I don’t quite understand what you would consider a “democratic transition”. Why shouldn’t I wonder whether Obama’s CIA was doing something to help Mubarak go. Apparently, it matters a great deal if you are a Jihadist tyrant or a secular tyrant to the Obama administration. Perhaps American Intelligence was just doing what the President asked them to do. Qaddafi had to go too. Why? For what? Was that a democratic transition to Al Qaeda?

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #69
  10. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    drlorentz:

    …it’s misleading to refer to the Arab Spring et seq. as a drawn out process while comparing it to the evolution of democracy in England. There’s a big difference between 5 years and 800 years. And there were plenty of opportunities for just complaints about the English process along the way. In short, Egypt is back in the year 1220. They’ve a long road ahead; they don’t get to jump the line.

    I think that’s true, but they have to start somewhere.  Their first steps are messy? So were ours.  It’s par for the course.

    They have to earn it. That takes many years and, sadly, probably piles of corpses. Holding one or two elections does not a democracy make.

    I couldn’t agree more.  Egypt will be a democracy when they hold elections regularly, these elections are meaningful (ie representative of all the major political ideologies in the country) and they are the accepted mechanism for the peaceful transfer of power.

    How will we know when they’re ready?  

    When they manage to do it.  That’s the only meaningful measure. 

    How will they learn?

    By trying. (And sometimes failing.) That’s the only way.

    The notion that Egypt was suddenly a democracy because Morsi was elected is silly.

    It was a necessary first step.  Don’t dismiss it. Or undermine it by pretending that it’s essentially the same as Sisi’s election. A democratic Middle East is as absolute good.

    • #70
  11. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    Zafar: It was a necessary first step. Don’t dismiss it. Or undermine it by pretending that it’s essentially the same as Sisi’s election. A democratic Middle East is as absolute good.

    I think we agree on most points. I’m less hopeful than you that democracy will succeed in Egypt, in the Middle East, or in general. There are reasons to be skeptical, beyond the scope of a comment. There are cultural differences among the peoples of the world. Democracy is one cultural value among many. As such, it is not shared by all.

    I leave you with a most apt quote from today’s Daily Shot:

    “Because we live in a largely free society, we tend to forget how limited is the span of time and the part of the globe for which there has ever been anything like political freedom: the typical state of mankind is tyranny, servitude, and misery.” —Milton Friedman

    Perhaps you have forgotten some of these truths, as Professor Friedman suggests.

    • #71
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