As global outrage grows over the sentencing to jail of three Al Jazeera journalists by an Egyptian court, the country’s strongman President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi is surprisingly adamant and rude. An international outcry of the sort currently witnessed should prompt any leader to revisit his policies and make adjustments. But Sisi seems determined to carry out his agenda. Yesterday, he refused a pardon for the jailed journalists, ignoring pleas from world leaders to release them. Suddenly, Sisi is exulting over the virtues and independence of his country’s judiciary. “We will not interfere in judicial rulings,” he said. “We must respect judicial rulings and not criticise them even if others do not understand this.”
Sisi’s comment means the future of the three journalists looks bleak. Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed were jailed for between seven and 10 years on Monday for endangering Egypt’s national security, alongside four students and activists. Two British Al Jazeera journalists and a Dutch freelancer were sentenced to a decade in jail in absentia, despite the prosecution failing to produce any evidence.
The world believes that the court verdict is politically motivated, which explains the extent of outrage it created. BBC journalists protested in London against the verdict, and Egyptian ambassadors in some capitals were summoned to protest the verdict. The global media and international organizations lambasted the unjust judiciary, calling the verdict an attack on media freedom.
The decision to jail the journalists is a miscalculated gamble and will only boomerang on Sisi. His government lacks legitimacy as May’s election was a farce and also due to the draconian crackdown on opposition and the blatant disdain with which he is treating international criticism of his actions. Instead of trying to earn the goodwill of foreign countries and the media, the government is focused on punishing its opponents.
The West, especially US, needs to exert more pressure on Cairo to guarantee media freedom. The US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Cairo this week to announce that the Obama administration was ready to normalise relations with the government, likely meaning a full restoration of military aid and the resumption of a suspended shipment of Apache helicopters. That plan needs to be put on hold. The US aid was originally suspended in response to the government’s harsh crackdown on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. That situation hasn’t changed.
There is concern about the future of Egypt due to the latest developments. Sisi is upending all that the country has gained from the revolution. The sad truth is that many Egyptians still support him, but it will be foolish to take this support for granted.