Most reactions to the farcical convictions of Australian journalist Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamad Fadel Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamad express shock and outrage at everything from the ridiculous evidence presented to the sentences that would have made Draco himself blush. The strongest reactions came from the British and US governments, with Foreign Minister William Hague and Prime Minister David Cameron saying they were “appalled,” and Secretary of State John Kerry calling the verdict “chilling” and “deeply disturbing.” Amnesty International Director Steve Crawshaw called the sentence “outrageous” and an “absolute affront to justice.”
This outrage is entirely justified, but entirely misses the point. The arrest, trial and often torture of journalists, activists and students from across the political spectrum has nothing to do with the pursuit of justice or security. Even comedians are harassed. These actions are best understood as a mafia-style warning, the content of which is fairly obvious: For anyone opposing the regime installed since the 2013 army coup, there is no safety in the law, nor in Western governments, nor in the international media. The use of violence to repress or stir up conflict useful to the regime is nothing new. The regime wants it to be clear that it can imprison anyone, any time, no matter how absurd the charges, how surreal the evidence or how great a travesty of justice the trial. In fact, the absurdity of the evidence and the Kafkaesque legal process are not an aberration. On the contrary, the greater their absurdity, the more effectively the new regime makes its point: Cross us at your peril; there is nowhere to hide.
Another misconception is that the Egyptian regime is spending its political capital with Western governments by pursuing this so-called hard line against opposition. Even if those governments’ rhetoric in support of human rights and the rule of law were genuine and backed up by action, there are very good reasons why the Egyptian regime would benefit from antagonizing them.
First and most obviously, because it is pleasing its Gulf sponsors — especially the Saudis — who are primarily interested in marginalizing the Muslim Brothers and in putting Qatar back in its place. These governments have not pressured their Western allies to support any significant move toward democracy in Egypt since 2011, and will not do so in the future. In this they are joined by Israel, which is interested in Egypt’s continuing support for Gaza’s closure. Second, because such high-profile behavior helps the new regime set its red lines with its Western backers. The sentencing of the “Al Jazeera Three” came the day after Kerry’s visit to Cairo, and with representatives of foreign governments and international NGOs present in court. Far from trying to avoid friction, the sentence was clearly calculated to cause the US maximum embarrassment. Third, because any rebuttal from Western governments plays to the paranoid xenophobic nationalism the regime has been stoking at home in order to isolate local opposition. Fourth, because the “scandal” of Western protest helps conveniently paper over the massive levels of aid the military and the state receive from those very same governments. Finally, and probably most important of all, because by causing such public tensions with Western governments the regime distracts public attention from the country’s deep structural problems, particularly the country’s worsening levels of inequality and the deep authoritarianism of its institutions.
The Egyptian army’s goal is to stay in power or close to it in order to defend its economic interests and political influence, and avoid being marginalized the way they were under Mubarak. The army’s first stint in power after removing Mubarak in February 2011 ended in disaster. Having consolidated its grip on power with a constitutional referendum in March, the army proceeded to inept management of both politics and the economy that had people chanting “down with military rule” in droves by autumn. It was this failure that forced the generals to concede those parliamentary and then presidential elections which brought the Muslim Brothers to power. Although the Brothers treated them mostly with kid gloves, the army brass then took advantage of the Islamists’ own inept rule to ride popular discontent and return to power by removing the only democratically elected president in the country’s history.
The army’s and ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s long-term problem is that the military’s vast business empire places it at the heart of a system that generates wealth for a small elite by plundering state assets. This system has come to rely on increasing authoritarianism in order to make possible the privatization and austerity policies which allow elites to grow richer. Over the past two decades, this system has worsened the social, economic and political marginalization of the bulk of Egypt’s population. It is this structural trend that made the January 2011 uprisings possible. The new regime’s impasse is rooted in the fact that the policies it has been pursuing for its own benefit are the very same that drove people into the streets three years ago. To consolidate its power, the army is relying on the oldest trick in the book — a “war on terror” stoking fear of inside traitors and outside enemies. The rhetoric of nationalism, chaos and security will work in the short term, and controlling or coopting most media and shutting down opposition outlets makes the regime’s sell easier. But the regime’s is a risky strategy. The regional uprisings show that, sooner or later, the population is likely to tire of the regime’s excuses, and as a tactic intimidation eventually generates more opposition, not less. Whether ensuing protests will lead to real change or just a switch in regime tactics as they have done so far is open to question. Successive regimes have tried to make instability work for them and have often succeeded: In both January 2011 and January 1977 they seem to have failed because frustration with repressive rule coupled with considerable economic upheaval. Since even these instances produced little long-term substantive political change, it seems that such change will be difficult without deep economic rifts, and without real economic and political alternatives beyond the current system (which the Brothers never offered).
Every criminal gang worth its salt knows it needs to keep the local population dependent and scared enough to believe there is no alternative, and duped enough into thinking that there is at least a veneer of morality covering what the racketeers do. But the strategies for enrichment that the Egyptian army — and for that matter all Egypt’s business elites, Brothers included — have opted for bite the hand that feeds them. How long before that hand slaps them remains to be seen.