There has been international condemnation of Peter Greste’s seven-year sentence handed down by an Egyptian judge, but that hasn’t stopped the United States from sending millions of dollars in military aid.
It’s almost impossible to imagine Egypt under Hosni Mubarak handing down a politically motivated seven-year jail sentence to an Australian-Latvian journalist.
Much has changed in Egypt since 2011, and in the protracted period of instability that followed, Egypt’s ties with the world have weakened. Tourism, in 2011 responsible for 11% of Egypt’s GDP, has dramatically fallen. Egypt, historically sensitive to global criticism because of its impact on tourism, is far less so now.
And anyway, the regime has bigger problems.
It’s tricky ruling Egypt these days. The last two presidents are in jail. Mubarak is facing a three-year jail sentence on corruption charges in a military prison. And Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Mohamed Morsi, is also in prison, awaiting trial for breaking out of jail in the 2011 uprising.
Recently elected president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi rose to power on a single priority: to bring stability to a country deeply divided. And the regime — which includes a judiciary and legal system over which Sisi has only limited direct control — knows this will require a show of force.
This show of force has seen the enactment of a protest law that’s thrown hundreds of protesters and innocent bystanders into prison. It’s also seen a death sentence handed down to 182 alleged Muslim Brotherhood members, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood leader. I use the word “alleged” because as the world is now learning, Egypt’s legal system can be imprecise. Defendants are held in a cage during the trial, which tells you all you need to know about the presumption of innocence. The judge has almost absolute control over both the presentation of evidence and the verdict — there are no juries. In such a legal system, the “innocent” can easily be rounded up along with the “guilty”.
This isn’t just affecting the poor and politically despised in Egypt. A few days ago, the Egyptian police shut down the Seoudi supermarket chains. Ddifferent members of the Seoudi family own different outlets of the family-owned business. One of the brothers is a well-known Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser and alleged financier, but his political views are not shared by his siblings. The government, however, took the whole business.
It’s one of countless examples of draconian, over-reaching judicial and police actions that according to independent monitoring group WikiThawra have led to 40,000 arrests since October. It’s hard to believe all or even most of these are ordered from the top, but their effect is the same — to stabilise the regime and dispossess those who could cause it trouble.
It’s into this situation that the Marriot Terror Cell defendants, as the Al Jazeera case is locally known, now find themselves. Greste was only in Egypt for a week, and worked for Al Jazeera English, which has not been tarred with the same bias allegations of its more strident Al Jazeera Arabic stablemate. According to media reports relying on interviews with key regime figures, Egyptian police intended to arrest Al Jazeera Arabic journalists, rather than those working for Al Jazeera English. But when Greste and his colleagues were netted, there was political hay to be made out of cracking down on Al Jazeera, an organisation seen as pro-Muslim Brotherhood by large parts of the Egyptian population. The Egyptian regime has lost a great deal of international legitimacy, but may have gained internal legitimacy in the process. Given the precariousness of Egypt right now, perhaps this is preferable.
There is one lever the international community does have over Egypt, and that is American military aid. US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Egypt in recent days, and spoke of the importance of human rights. But he also spoke of releasing some of the withheld military aid his country provides to Egypt, including a number of Apache helicopters. “The Apaches will come, and they’ll come very soon,” he told reporters yesterday. The United States also quietly sent $572 million in military aid to Egypt in the past fortnight — the first release of some $1.5 billion worth of military goods withheld from Egypt since October.
The United States has not commented on the status of this aid since last night’s verdict, but Kerry’s remarks yesterday did not seem to hinge on the outcome of the trial. With ISIS on the rampage, perhaps the American government would prefer Egypt’s radicals were in jail rather than on a plane to Iraq.
In the Greste case, there can be an appeal, and, if that fails, a presidential pardon for the foreign nationals jailed yesterday. Tony Abbott strongly alluded to this in his morning doorstop, saying he wouldn’t criticise the Egyptian regime for fear of jeopardising any future pardon or clemency. The government may decide there’s little to gain in keeping Greste locked up, and quietly release him in the future. But for the Egyptians netted in the country’s punitive legal system, there is less hope. Internationally criticised or not, a harsh legal system has its uses.