There has been much anger and many public expressions of shock at the prison sentences handed down to three Al Jazeera English journalists on Monday. It’s a high profile case involving a white foreigner, Australian correspondent Peter Greste, and an Egyptian-Canadian national, Mohamed Fahmy.
Sometimes white foreigners are able to extricate themselves from unpleasant legal imbroglios — if it gets that far — via their diplomatic missions (in December 2012 American defendants in the NGO trial were airlifted out of the country). Egypt also tends to give first worlders a wide berth (but not always) because of the PR headache their appearances in court create, as Greste has demonstrated. Egyptian dual nationals however are fair game since the foreigner defense power is diluted by the Egyptianess.
In amongst the expressions of shock there were plenty of people on Facebook and Twitter and Egyptian television who stated their support for the verdict. Some of these individuals aren’t even nut job, xenophobic morons. They’re ordinary (often otherwise reasonable) people who go Incredible Hulk at the mention of the magic words “Al Jazeera” and who, for over a year, have had intravenously injected into their brains the notion that Al Jazeera English and Arabic are a single entity and that Al Jazeera is part of a Qatar-funded plot to destabilize Egypt in the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had plans to send Egypt to hell in an Islamist hand basket, we are told.
Like general populations elsewhere in the world the Egyptian public relies on Facebook, the media and gossip for its sources of news. In Egypt, as elsewhere, media reporting and gossip are often indistinguishable, with the added twist of heavy-handed state control, direct and indirect, of much of the media. In the run up to June 30, much of Egypt’s private media mutated into a braying mule straining at the bit. Viewers and readers were fed a constant diet of anti-Brotherhood propaganda. Islamist channels and newspapers were closed down. A massive crackdown began. Hundreds were killed in one day during a clearing of two sit-ins by Morsi supporters. The army took over and announced it would fight and win against terrorism with citizens’ help. There were bombings in Cairo and elsewhere, some of them large and deadly. The Muslim Brotherhood were found to be responsible for them, the incontrovertible proof being a forthright newspaper opinion column plus a Facebook status your uncle’s friend shared.
The summer of 2013 and its tail end were a hothouse of this madness. The shrill nationalism which developed spread like a miasma. Like a ship, nationalism requires something to float on if it is to sail, and a raging sea was provided by a vicious and comprehensive hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood and anything associated with it. In this atmosphere, suggesting that Al Jazeera English (whose Arabic sister channel had always had Brotherhood leanings in its coverage but after Morsi’s removal positively timbered) was a credible and independent news source which had never displayed any perceptible bias in its coverage of Egypt was like suggesting that Ronnie Kray is actually a decent bloke but misunderstood because of Reggie. Egypt has never been big on nuance and it disappeared altogether during this period of battening down the hatches and saving Egypt.
The reason behind the decision to go after Greste et al is best known to those who took it but there are several interpretations. My two favorites are: 1. This was part of the crackdown against the Brotherhood and 2. Somebody somewhere genuinely believed that Fahmy and friends were up to no good in their Marriott Hotel suite, but at the same time realized this might be difficult to sell to an (international?) audience what with Greste being both white and an experienced Islamist trickster and Fahmy a shape-shifting Brotherhood undercover mullah. This is why they produced a terrible 20-minute video of the police raid on the suite which was aired on television complete with dramatic music and close-ups on laptops and innocuous everyday items. As a rule, journalists make terrible Islamist miscreants in PR terms because they lack the menace of a giant fierce beard and scary “I reject your heathen ways” galabeyyas. Greste, as I recall, was wearing an Indiana Jones hat when they were taken.
The video was amateurish and awkward but it had the desired effect of sowing a seed of doubt; why would the state go to such lengths unless these men had been up to no good? It also didn’t help that the men were working without permits (they were working in secret!) and interviewing Brotherhood members (if you want to give a platform to a terrorist then you are undoubtedly one yourself!)
For vast swathes of the Egyptian audience no transition from Al Jazeera journalist to Brotherhood trojan/terrorist was necessary. And even if there were doubts about the case, during a war against terrorism no quarter can be given. The charges against the men – when they were eventually announced – were ludicrous and the court proceedings must seem even more so to those unversed in the ways of Egypt’s lofty judiciary. But the threshold for the absurd here is higher than the outside world can ever imagine. This is a country whose army has just announced that it has invented a device that can cure Hepatitis C. Egypt has also been blessed with another device that can cure AIDS. Its inventor, one Ibrahim Abdel Aty actually said out loud that Egypt will suck the AIDS out of patients, turn it into kofta and then give it back to the patient to eat. Acting decisively but alas too literally, Egypt culled all its pigs during the swine flu outbreak. The current president of Egypt said during an interview that he predicts the future in his dreams via symbols such as green stars and Omega watches. Yesterday he said that he will donate half of what he owns – “even” things inherited from his father – to Egypt and apparently believes that this is acceptable in lieu of an actual economic policy. He also talked to God directly during this speech. At the end of December, Vodafone was alleged to have sent coded Brotherhood messages via a hand puppet in one of its adverts. At least two animals (a shark and a bird) have been suspected of spying in Egypt.
That ludicrousness doesn’t stop on the steps of the courthouse. I once covered a case against newspaper editor Ibrahim Eissa where one of the plaintiffs brought his seven year old son in to say that he was unable to sleep out of worry at Eissa’s claims that Mubarak’s health was failing. Trials are frequently chaotic and messy, and run with the same disregard for citizens’ rights as any other state institution. And I have never understood how the burden of proof works, how nearly 600 men can be handed down death sentences in a trial’s second court session, or why the most basic of things such as recording a defendant’s name accurately on the charge sheet isn’t considered important (Dutch journalist Rena Netjes’ name was recorded as “Johanna Identity,” which I think they might have borrowed from OK Cupid).
The results of all this can be sinister. This week newspapers reported that a Christian and a blind man were amongst those sentenced to death for crimes they are alleged to have committed as part of a marauding Islamist mob reacting to the Rabea dispersal. And there are currently tens of thousands of people in prison either waiting to be charged or convicted (and in some cases handed down life sentences) because of their political beliefs.
Everything since November 2012 (when Morsi in his stupidity attempted to give himself dictator powers) has been leading to the point we are at today, backed into a corner danker and darker than the one we briefly left in January 2011. Perhaps if there had been a greater outcry about the crackdown when it only targeted the Brotherhood, things might have been different. Perhaps if people had been able to swallow their distaste and speak up about the Brotherhood protesters arrested, detained and imprisoned every Friday since July, the state would not have had such an easy time of arresting the 23 people it detained on Saturday demonstrating against the Protest Law, and whose detention has received (well-deserved) attention and outrage, internationally and in Egypt, not only because they are brave and some of them are women, but because they are not Morsi supporters. It is extremely difficult to sympathize with the Brotherhood, who in power gave short shrift to their opponents and ultimately screwed us all, but the political polarization of Egypt’s opposition even at times of extreme crisis has been disastrous for everyone.
It is difficult to see what could stop this tidal wave now that it is in full motion. Outside pressure comes in the form of a light ticking off and gifts of Apache helicopters and, paradoxically, while the government seems keen to sell to the world its case that it is a democracy with popular support fighting a terrorist threat, external criticism seems only to make it dig its heels in further and, in his rhetoric, Sisi turns this disregard into a macho totem of Egypt’s strength and independence.
Domestically, meanwhile, it countenances no criticism — not that there is much outside the activist circles — as Sisi cleverly builds his new republic, a shiny utopia of bike riding and zero tolerance for sexual harassment underneath whose foundations are layers upon layers of festering rot. There is little room for surprise about anything in this brave new world.