This week, which marks one year of detention in Egyptian jails for three Al-Jazeera television journalists, is an opportunity for Egyptians and all those who love Egyptto reflect on the wider predicaments and distortions from which the country suffers. They augur badly for Egypt 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. These have become tools by which the executive branch and the armed forces reassert full control of all public power.
Dozens of other Egyptian journalists and an estimated 21,000 Egyptians – according to credible Egyptian human rights organizations – have been detained during the past year of military rule that overthrew the elected president, Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammad Morsi, and ushered in the current president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.
The charge that these three journalists, 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 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 able to right its wrongs. Rather, it would mirror exactly the opposite: the sad depravities of a diseased and vicious political power structure that can jail tens of thousands of people and use the judicial and security systems to achieve the administration’s desire to eliminate any opposition 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 welcome 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 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 President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in January 2011.
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. That is the reality even if it remains camouflaged beneath 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 in all sectors of society, whether in Egypt or most other Arab countries.
This case is the tip of an iceberg of mass misgovernance by military men that ultimately undermines what had once been a leader in terms of Arab public authority and cultural systems. Egyptian governance has become a mere shell of its former self, and little more than a vehicle for the well-being of a small minority of Egyptians. This is taking place while the majority spirals into an unending maelstrom of poverty, marginalization, vulnerability, incompetence and petty daily corruption. Tens of millions of Egyptians are being dehumanized 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 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, with their civilian allies who benefit economically from such rule, will fight hard to maintain their autocratic control, at any cost.
In Egypt, the most awful sign of their ability to do such a thing is evident in the case of the jailed journalists. Military-dominated regimes turn once proud and credible judiciaries into cartoon-like international laughing stocks. 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 return and fix the mess that it created in the first place.
The journalists must be freed. But so too must Egyptians and Arabs, from the crippling, deadly grip of military rule.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.