In a statement issued by his brothers, he said the trial had been an “attempt to use the court to intimidate and silence critical voices in the media”. Prosecutors, he said, had failed to produce any concrete evidence that the three had spread false news. The seven-year jail terms handed to the three sparked outrage.
“Al Jazeera definitely was biased,” said Hisham Kassem, founder of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the first publisher of the independent Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper. “It was used by the Qatari government in its mud fight with Egypt,” he said, referring to the Emir of Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood around the region and criticism of governments that oppose the Islamist organization.
“But the way to confront such a thing,” Mr. Kassem said, “is to expose it, not to imprison its journalists.”
The verdict has ended any illusions that Egypt’s democratic transition has been postponed rather than cancelled, observers suggest.
“Who would have thought, when Egypt was in the throes of its revolutionary fervor, when its people had apparently vanquished a dictator with an irresistible cry for democracy, that its people would so soon approve of this farcical, authoritarian injustice?” says analyst Waleed Aly:
We can be outraged by this – even if we didn’t much care until an Australian got caught up in it. We can even deride Egypt, as Peter Reith recently did, as “a very nasty totalitarian police state” with “a pretend judiciary” – even if that has been true for 30 years during which time we were happy to call Egypt our friend. But if we look hard enough, we’ll recognise there is something all too human about this monstrous injustice. We’ll see this is what happens to a nation that has terrified itself. If even durable, mature, successful democracies like us or the United States can trade in our principles for hysteria on occasion, what hope did a dysfunctional nation with no real political culture like Egypt have?
The prosecution has also raised doubts about the independence of the judiciary.
“Well, we really don’t know whether there are any instructions to judges and so forth on how to rule in this case. But we can say a couple of things,” says Michele Dunne (right), a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.
“One of them is that these cases come out of the Egyptian government. It came out of Egyptian intelligence, the Interior Ministry and so forth. And they played a very active role, she told PBS NewsHour (above).
“The other thing is that, whether or not there is any direct involvement or instructions by Sisi or others in the Egyptian government to the judiciary, certainly, all the signals that President Sisi has sent, everything he says is in line with this, very, very harsh, anti-dissent, anti-Brotherhood, that the Brotherhood are terrorists and so forth,” said Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.
“I agree with Michelle that the military-backed political order has created an enabling environment in which repression has flourished. And I do think that it’s very difficult to parse out how things happen and why,” said Michael Hanna, a Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation.
“I do know that there were severe disagreements within the Egyptian government, at fairly high levels, when the Al-Jazeera English journalists were arrested. Of course, to try to unwind this kind of case requires the expenditure of a lot of political capital and a very big political fight that no players have as of yet taken up the challenge to accomplish.”
In his prosecution of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and activists, Judge Youssef had brought ridicule to Egypt with his unfair and arbitrary rulings and he should be removed from the case, democracy advocate Kassem told VOA.
“Due process was not observed during any of these trials where mass death sentences were shelled out and it’s continuing,” said Kassem. “Now, obviously there is something seriously wrong. This is not a minor error or so. Death sentences do not come en masse. So, it is time that there is an administrative intervention from the ministry of justice to put an end to this. It is becoming an international farce.”
Sisi Islamic not Islamist
“The attitude of the liberal and secular sectors towards al-Sisi’s religious views is puzzling,” notes Khalil al-Anani, a leading academic expert on Islamist movements, Egyptian politics and democratization in the Middle East.
Some of them seem to have entered a state of disappointment and shock, due to the conspicuous presence of religion in his speeches. Apparently, their conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood prevented them from adequately expressing this shock, so as not to give the Brotherhood a chance to gloat over it. Many of them have, after all, claimed that their support of the July 3 coup was out of fear that the Brotherhood would turn Egypt into a theocracy, not to mention their condemnation of what they considered a crackdown on personal and religious freedoms during Mohamed Morsi’s rule.
“Al-Sisi might not attempt to turn Egypt into a religious state following the Iranian or Pakistani models, as was the case during the rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the late 1970s and 1980s, for example,” he observes. “But he definitely isn’t going to build a free civil state where individuals enjoy personal freedoms without the guardianship of the state and the president.”
Stop playing favorites
“By imprisoning critics and members of the Brotherhood and intensifying a crackdown on dissent, Sisi and his new government risk leaving opponents with little alternative but to take to the streets once again,” says David J. Kramer, President of Freedom House:
No one wants to see more instability in Egypt, but the “stability” Sisi claims to be bringing to his country may be very short-lived. That possibility should force the Obama administration to develop a policy that stops playing favorites with whoever is in power—whether Morsi or Sisi or the next person—and instead focuses on democratic principles. Such a change in approach would serve U.S. interests better than pretending that Egypt is on the right path or buying the rhetoric of Egypt’s latest authoritarian leader.
As if to prove his point, Egypt this week experienced a wave of violent attacks by Islamist militants based in the Sinai peninsula.
“This is going to continue to be an issue so long as Islamists assess that they have no political space in which they can act and so long as the heavy handedness of the security forces continues,” said Firas Abi Ali, Middle East and North Africa analyst at IHS country risk in London.