It’s Groundhog Day in Egypt. Yesterday, three Al Jazeera journalists — Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed — were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in prison on trumped-up charges in a kangaroo court. No public evidence was submitted to prove the Orwellian charge of spreading false news.
We’ve seen this movie before, and it does not end well. Under former president Hosni Mubarak, civil society in Egypt was decimated for three decades. A corrupt regime imprisoned bloggers, strangled a free press, and exacerbated radicalism. Eventually, the dictator was toppled and the Muslim Brotherhood took over.
In 2012, Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Khairat al Shater delivered a seminal speech in which he explained that in his vision of Brotherhood rule, “Every aspect of life is to be Islamized.” No wonder that when the Brotherhood came to power, comedians were harassed, atheists jailed, and religious minorities threatened. Despite participating in elections, the Brotherhood was — and remains — profoundly anti-democratic. Its extremist aims quickly alienated millions of Egyptians, and like Mubarak, it too was eventually toppled.
The Egyptian regime today claims it is fighting the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood is unquestionably a threat. However, there is a smart way and a stupid way to fight. Jailing journalists is neither moral, nor smart, nor effective. Will shutting down Al Jazeera in Egypt discredit the Brotherhood? No. Does jailing young activists like Ahmad Maher and Ahmad Douma weaken the Muslim Brotherhood? Hardly. Does imprisoning a Coptic teacher for “insulting” Islam, as happened a few months ago, counter the Brotherhood? Not remotely.
Freedom of the press is not the problem in Egypt — it is one of the solutions.
The smart way to fight the Brotherhood is to replace a bad philosophical and political system with a good one, to foster liberalism and respect for individual rights. It means strengthening democratic forces and helping pry open a closed society. It requires reforming restrictive political structures, extremist religious institutions, and corrupt judiciaries. It means applying real pressure to free political prisoners like Greste, Fahmy, and Mohamed.
The US condemned the imprisonment of the Al Jazeera journalists, but this month Secretary of State John Kerry also announced that more than $500 million of aid would be released and sent to Egypt’s military dictatorship. Talk about mixed signals.
We can’t solve all the Middle East’s problems, but standing up for the region’s imprisoned journalists, bloggers, and dissidents is a small start that would go a long way.
The West cannot control events in Egypt, but it can nudge the country in the right direction. One powerful tool would be linking foreign aid to improvements in human rights. Sending hundreds of millions of dollars and Apache helicopters to a dictatorship that just jailed several of its leading journalists sends the unmistakable message that America doesn’t care what you do to your own people. It is a message heard not only by new Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, but by tyrants around the world.
We can’t solve all the Middle East’s problems, but standing up for the region’s imprisoned journalists, bloggers, and dissidents is a small start that would go a long way. A few months ago, I launched Dissident Squared to rename the streets in front of the embassies of dictatorships after political prisoners. The US Congress adopted the idea and a bipartisan group of 31 members of the House and Senate including Representative Nancy Pelosi, Senator John McCain, and Senator Marco Rubio sent a letter to the Washington, DC mayor and Council requesting that the street in front of the Chinese embassy be renamed for Liu Xiaobo, China’s jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner. According to the Washington Post, “the Chinese naturally went ballistic.”
In light of yesterday’s decision to jail three journalists in Egypt, it is time we move forward with Dissident Squared there too. Individuals miffed at the sentencing and disappointed with world leaders who didn’t prevent it can start the process of renaming the streets in front of Egyptian embassies for Greste, Fahmy, and Mohamed (particularly in Canada and Australia, where two of the journalists have citizenship).
Defeating the Brotherhood’s ideology in the long term will require strengthening moderates, democrats, and liberals. True, these forces are extremely weak in Egypt today, but all the more reason why they need support. Where might democrats in Egypt be today if it they had been the recipient of tens of billions of dollars of aid instead of a military dictator? It is a question worth asking if we are tired of choosing between secular tyrants and religious ones.