BY Safa Joudeh
Over the past month, two separate attacks on on scores of tourists have taken place on Egyptian soil. The tragedies should have kicked off some serious soul-searching, and counter-terrorism tactics ought to have come under scrutiny. But the unexpected has happened.
An accidental military airstrike on a convoy of Mexican tourists, and a Russian plane crash likely caused by a security breach needed careful, rigorous investigation.
At least 224 Russian tourists and crew members lost their lives when Metrojet Flight 9268 blew up on October 31. Soon after take-off from the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh, fuselage was found scattered across the Sinai Peninsula., with large parts of the wreckage splayed across the El-Arish landscape. The Russian public was devastated; vigils displayed how keenly many felt the loss. Who had done it? Was responsibility for the deaths at the door of Daesh, or an electrical fault or something else altogether? The world’s public wanted to know.
Both incidents came at a time when the country desperately needed to improve its international standing.
Whilst the world expected Egypt to reassess its security approach, the government chose a wholly different tack: to wilfully downplay the incidents and instead opt for a bizarre series of explanations that made little sense.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sissi was adamant: “Any propaganda reports that the jet was somehow downed by terrorists are aimed at destabilizing the region and tarnishing Egypt’s image.” This was said even as Daesh had claimed responsibility for the attack, and even as no concrete evidence in any direction could corroborate the assertion.
The government’s handling of the plane crash, Russia’s Metrojet, or Airbus A321, was like watching a wreck in slow motion, all over again.
What made the unusual handling of the investigation all the more glaring was Egypt’s subsequent response.
The fallout has seen local journalists arrested, their security concerns quashed, and political gerrymandering at the hands of an increasingly iron-fisted military government seeking to consolidate power and authority.
And yet Egypt’s Western allies have turned a blind eye, choosing rather to believe in a façade of accountability that has made it appear as though Egypt is well on the path towards democracy.
The arrest of Hossam Bahgat, an investigative journalist and local human rights advocate captured the storm and its ensuing chaos neatly. Bahgat is one of Egypt’s most prominent activists. After founding the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent human rights organization, Bahgat had left EIPR and joined Mada Masr, an online news site, where his pen flourished. He wrote piece after piece on accountability; focusing his gaze on army and military investigations and trials.
His arrest proved a flashpoint. Like many other journalists this month, Bahgat faced penalties from a regime that is increasingly censoring any dissenting opinion. In fact, two journalists from the popular daily Al Masry Al Youm—the columnist Gamaal El Gamal, and the paper’s owner, Salah Diab—faced suspension and arrest in retaliation for articles deemed subversive published in the paper earlier this month.
Bahgat was arrested and detained after publishing an article that described the quiet conviction of 26 officers accused of plotting a coup against the government. The charge: spreading information that “disturb[ed] public order” and “harm[ed] national interests”—ostensibly because his work had exposed divisions within the army ranks, the denial of due process, and the unlawful practices related to the treatment of detainees. His was a thankless job.
But while cases like Gamal and Diab’s have elicited little response on the part of the regime, Bahgat was released within a week of his arrest.
What accounted for the difference? The Egyptian government wasn’t counting on blowback. Bahgat’s arrest had unleashed a global campaign of solidarity that included statements from the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Amnesty international, as well as an outcry from the region.
It was unusual for Egypt’s government to pay any attention to international censure about an internal matter it alone was responsible for. Who would bother to sound the alarm on yet another act against one of its own citizens, especially in an environment of heavy handed repression that had become the hallmark of the country’s governing regime?
Cases such as Bahgat’s proved that Egypt’s increasingly repressive security strategy to consolidate power and ensure unimpeded rule was at odds with the desire to appease allies fearful of rebuilding ties with an authoritarian government.
Western supporters too are aware of the double game they must play in order to secure a long-standing partnership with the country’s rulers. Despite the regime’s pursuit of political opposition forces, pro-democratic countries such as the United States have gradually adopted a “business as usual approach” to their relationship with Sisi’s administration, voicing support for him as a key partner in the region and lifting a hold on military aid to the Egyptian armed forces earlier this year. Leaders such as David Cameron and John Kerry have even gone so far as to laud the country’s counterterrorism policies.
But such blandishments do little to address the real security concerns Egyptians face. The death of tourists should have merited a credible response, or in the very least, sincere assurances that the government aims to reassess its security approach. Instead, the Egyptian government chose to intentionally obfuscate both incidents.
The umbrella of “counter-terrorism” has provided a useful cover for military leaders intent on quelling dissent. The cover enables the state to censore critical voices, and Egypt’s new law warns of stiff penalties for those who publish news that contradicts official statements on counterterrorism operations. Reporting news that “promot[es] ideas or beliefs advocating the commission of terrorist acts” can result in a five-year jail sentence.
Such laws do little to protect citizens from any real terrorist threat. Rather, they systematically erode basic rights in the name of stability and whitewash the government’s failings on matters of public interest and security.
Within the past week alone, state television newscaster Azza El Hennawy was suspended and referred to investigation for criticizing the Sisi administration’s response to deadly floods that hit the country in recent weeks.
The official reason for her suspension was a “departure from neutrality”. But this was merely a euphemism to describe the failure to adhere to the state’s carefully scripted narrative.
Similar tactics will continue to haunt any individual or establishment that strays from the official party line. Reporters like Bahgat who dare question the military’s supra-constitutional powers and opaque practices will face the wrath of brutal repression under the guise of “rule of law.”
Despite Bahgat’s release, his case is still ongoing and his fate uncertain. Whatever the verdict might be, the example of his detention will force journalists to either operate within enforced “information messaging” parameters dictated by the government, or face the penalties of their disobedience.
It was hoped that parliamentary elections in October would provide a political roadmap for Egypt’s democratic transition and a relaxationof its attitude towards freedom of speech. But a tailor-made electoral system has ensured the sweeping success of pro-regime candidates and polling (as well as Bahgat’s arrest) took place amid a backdrop of sweeping, restrictive laws that have debilitated civil society.
Hundreds of dissidents have been sentenced to death, with scores more forcibly disappeared, as well as tens of thousands of political activists detained on trumped up charges.
These incidents represent a setback for outlets and journalists attempting to preserve a small degree of autonomy in a landscape where the media has traditionally acted as a propaganda tool for the government.
But Bahgat’s case proves particularly telling, as it demonstrates the increasing power of the military in enforcing public order and shaping public narrative.
On account of his international exposure, the journalist and human-rights advocate may be guaranteed some level of basic rights.
But his case is just the latest in a series of actions aimed at suppressing independent journalism and civil society. With few Western powers willing to sacrifice their strategic partnership with Egypt for greater issues on human rights, freedom of expression and public dissent are all but guaranteed to disappear in the new authoritarian order.