On Monday, an Egyptian court convicted three international journalists from Al Jazeera’s English-language network along with 15 others of conspiring with “terrorists” to harm national unity. Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Australian Peter Greste received seven-year sentences; Egyptian Baher Mohamed got an extra three years for possessing a single spent bullet, a souvenir from his reporting on the country’s street protests.
The journalists were arrested while covering a demonstration in Cairo and accused of aiding the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. They were imprisoned for six months, and during 13 trial sessions Egyptian authorities did not produce any evidence to support their allegations. None.
Imprisoning working journalists appears to be part of a broader effort by Egypt’s transitional government to repress freedom of expression and peaceful dissent. Along with the arrests of journalists, the government has imprisoned many nonviolent protestors, activists, and intellectuals. These actions call into question the stated intention of the Egyptian government to complete Egypt’s transition to democracy.
Egypt is an extraordinarily important nation -- the most populous Arab country and a bellwether for the Middle East region. As a result, the bizarre outcome of this deeply-flawed trial has ignited a storm of international criticism for Egypt, just as newly-elected President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has assumed office. The question brought into sharp focus by the harsh sentences given to journalists in Egypt now arises: As the newly-elected leader of a great nation, what kind of Egypt does President al-Sisi hope to build?
Strong professional journalism and the right for people to peaceably voice their opinions are essential ingredients of a democratic society. As President al-Sisi begins his tenure as Egypt’s leader, he has the opportunity to propel his country down a positive path towards an inclusive political process that fosters universal rights and freedoms for all Egyptians. His government has widespread support. For that reason, Egypt has no need to imprison journalists -- or to take many of the other repressive measures we have seen during recent months. It should instead focus its attention on helping get Egypt back on its feet -- revitalizing the national economy and helping its young people get new jobs and opportunities.
This week, Secretary Kerry visited Egypt and reaffirmed the importance of America’s partnership with the country and the Egyptian people. President al-Sisi assured Secretary Kerry that he desires to see the country advance. The United States shares that aspiration. President al-Sisi can take a decisive step in that direction by reviewing all of the political sentences and verdicts and using all of the remedies at his disposal, including pardons, to correct the injustices that transpired in recent months. Egypt needs a fresh start -- and all of its people -- to move the nation forward.