This week’s mark of one full year in detention in Egyptian jails for three convicted Al-Jazeera television journalists is an opportunity for all those who love Egypt and Egyptians to reflect on the wider predicaments and distortions that this country suffers, which augur badly for itself and the entire Arab world. The case of the three journalists — Mohammad Fahmy, Baher Mohammad and Peter Greste — is merely the tip of the iceberg of scandalous misuse of the judiciary and the police as tools by which the executive branch and the armed forces behind it reassert full control of all public power.
Dozens of other Egyptian journalists and an estimated 21,000 other Egyptians — according to credible Egyptian human rights organizations — have been detained during the past year of military rule that overthrew the elected presidency of Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamad Morsi and ushered in the current President Abdel Fattah Sisi.
The charges that these three men or the Al-Jazeera channel itself could be involved in security threats and assisting the Muslim Brotherhood in a plot to destabilize Egypt are so beyond the realm of the reasonable — and the evidence the Egyptian prosecutors presented in court can only be described as a joke — that the charges against them will likely be dropped soon, their convictions overturned, or retrials ordered which would find them not guilty. Or President Sisi could pardon them, since they have been sentenced to 7-10 years in prison.
All these options would be good news for these three men and their families, and perhaps will help free other journalists who are similarly detained on mostly fabricated charges. But if this happens, it should not be seen as reflecting a political governance system that is able to right its wrongs, because it would mirror exactly the opposite — the sad depravities of a diseased and vicious political power structure that can jail tens of thousands of its people and use the judicial and security systems to achieve the administration’s desire to eliminate any opposition views and maintain Egypt under the control of the armed forces and their crony capitalist colleagues who have run the country into the ground since 1952.
Releasing the three Al-Jazeera journalists would be a welcomed humanitarian gesture. But it would not dent the political power structure that has found that it can perpetuate the armed forces’ 62-year-old rule in Egypt without suffering any serious drops in its international military or financial support, whether from Arab or Western sources. The real danger for Egypt is that continuing to rely on the military to mismanage the country will only aggravate existing conditions (poverty, social and income disparities, lack of jobs, mass informal employment, corruption) that ultimately led to the uprising and revolution that overthrew the Husni Mubarak regime four years ago.
Perpetual military rule, which means forbidding genuine pluralism and accountability, guarantees that the long-term, slow-motion corrosion of the integrity of governance and public authority will become institutionalized, but camouflaged beneath a bitter brand of mass public hysteria that dreams of strong leaders who can provide instant national salvation. The Al-Jazeera journalists’ case rightly received massive international attention, but tens of thousands of other examples of misuse of the judiciary, the security agencies and the executive branch occur routinely across all sectors of society, in Egypt and most other Arab countries.
This case truly is a tip of an iceberg of mass misgovernance by military men that ultimately hollows out what had once been a leader among Arab public authority and cultural systems. This in turn leaves Egyptian governance as a mere shell of its former self, little more than a vehicle for the well-being of a small minority of Egyptians, while the majority spirals into an unending maelstrom of poverty, marginalization, vulnerability, incompetence, and petty daily corruption as a wholesale survival strategy by tens of millions of Egyptian nationals who explode from their own dehumanization one day, and seek solace in a savior the next.
The corrosion and decay of Egyptian public life offers the frightening specter of this pattern spreading across the Arab world — in those countries, that is, that have not plunged into gruesome civil war and dropped out of the business of orderly governance and sovereign statehood. The last four years have clarified that military-run political orders and their allied civilian-commercial colleagues will fight hard to maintain their autocratic rule, at any cost.
The most awful sign of their ability to do this is evident in the Egyptian case of the jailed journalists: Military regimes turn once proud and credible judiciaries into cartoon-like international laughing stocks, and the regimes’ incompetence and authoritarianism lead to such stressful life conditions for their own citizens that tens of millions of those citizens eventually come around to asking the military to come back and fix the mess it created in the first place.
The journalists must be freed, but so also must the Egyptian and Arab people be freed from the crippling, deadly grip of military rule.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global
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