Egypt’s Shame

This morning a judge in Egypt convicted journalists Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Peter Greste, and Baher Mohamed of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood and sentenced them to between seven and 10 years in prison. All three were working for Al-Jazeera when they were arrested six months ago, but have a wide range of professional experience, including stints with CNN, The New York Times, and the BBC. Three other journalists–Al-Jazeera English presenter Sue Turton, Al-Jazeera reporter Dominic Kane, and a correspondent for Dutch Parool newspaper, Rena Netjes–were sentenced to 10 years in absentia.

The verdict comes less than a month after the election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as Egypt’s new president. Despite widespread concerns about the fairness of the vote, the president clearly hopes the election will legitimatize the current regime and repair international relationships. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who passed through Cairo on Sunday on his way to Baghdad, indicated that U.S. military aid to Egypt could soon be restored.

But Egypt cannot be allowed to normalize its international relationships so long as it continues to jail journalists. While the focus has been on the Al-Jazeera journalists, in fact Egypt is currently holding at least 14 journalists in prison, placing the country among the world’s worst repressors. One journalist, Abdullah al-Shami, was released last week on medical parole after waging a hunger strike. His trial is ongoing.

Today’s verdict is even more acutely embarrassing for Egypt given the nature of the legal proceedings. The trial was almost farcical, and among the evidence admitted were family vacation photos and footage of news reports from other networks on unrelated subjects.

The clearly politicalized nature of the prosecution has also sent a chill through the Cairo press corps, which has rallied to support their imprisoned colleagues. In a letter sent to el-Sisi on Friday, dozens of leading international journalists called on the president to intervene to ensure justice.

The letter reads, “Whatever the verdict, we firmly believe that the release of the journalists–by acquittal, presidential pardon, or some other act of clemency–will send a positive message to Egypt and the world. It will demonstrate the confidence and stability of the government as well as an appreciation of the important role of journalism.” (The letter in Arabic is available here).

With all due deference to the reputed independence of the Egyptian judiciary, today’s verdict has nothing to the do with the law. It’s a transparently politicized result, in which the Al-Jazeera journalists have become pawns in a conflict with Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The verdict thus represents a political crisis for President el-Sisi–one he must find a way to resolve if he wants to achieve his goal of legitimating the government and restoring his country’s international standing.