The convictions of three journalists — and subsequent seven-year prison sentences — issued by an Egyptian court on Monday were a dismayingly stern reminder that attitudes in the repressive regime of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi have not softened. The court sentences also served as an embarrassment for the US State Department, coming less than 24 hours after Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Egypt, to renew what he called an “important partnership” with that country.
Any illusions that Egypt will “restore democracy” following the ouster of elected president Mohammed Morsi last year have been erased. Thousands of supporters of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party have been imprisoned or killed; secular protestors and journalists have been jailed; and, last Saturday, more than 180 people were sentenced to death in a mass trial stemming from the killing of a police officer and a civilian in a protest. The trial of the three Al Jazeera journalists (Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste, and Egyptian Baher Mohamed), for supposedly conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to broadcast false reports, has been roundly condemned as a sham by international human rights groups.
Kerry has since voiced “our serious displeasure” and said, “Injustices like these simply cannot stand.” There are any number of good reasons that the US must maintain a diplomatic relationship with Egypt — the fragile treaty with Israel, the spreading turmoil in Syria and Iraq, and the general post-Arab Spring volatility in the region. Still, the United States has leverage with the Egyptian government — not least of which is $1.5 billion in annual military aid. The relationship with Egypt should continue, but only if it’s accompanied by vigilant diplomatic pressure.