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In June 2014, an Egyptian judge handed down prison sentences of between seven and ten years to several international journalists on the charge of aiding terrorists and endangering national security. Moments before he was led away to the cells, one of the defendants – Canadian-Egyptian reporter Mohamed Fahmy – shouted from his cage, “Where is John Kerry?” Given the strong language members of the United States administration had used to condemn the court case, it was a pertinent question. The answer was that Kerry had just left Cairo, having held a friendly meeting with President Abdelfattah el-Sisi the previous day in which he promised to release $575 million of previously suspended U.S. aid to the Egyptian military.
If the U.S. is serious about supporting free speech and opposing human rights abuses in Egypt, one of Washington’s closest regional allies, then policymakers must move beyond rhetorical denunciations of high-profile wrongdoing on the part of the Egyptian government and begin questioning how both American financial support and the articulation of a shared ‘war on terror’ narrative helps create an enabling environment in which state repression can flourish. As Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, argues, “Egypt cannot be allowed to normalize its international relationships so long as it continues to jail journalists.”
- Without clear progress on the issue of press freedom, the U.S. cannot and should not certify the next tranche of FY14 aid to Egypt.
- The U.S. administration should draw up a detailed checklist of press freedom indicators that the Egyptian government must conform to if future aid tranches are to be certified.
- Independent access to regions in which American military hardware is being deployed must be permitted if arms exports to Egypt are to continue.
- President Obama must make good on his promise that the U.S. is “going to continue to push back” against efforts to repress journalists in Egypt and elsewhere.
- The U.S. should stress to the Egyptian government that economic development – and foreign investment – is closely tied to international perceptions of transparency and accountability in the country, and that the repression of journalists is fatally damaging to both.
Jack Shenker is an award-winning journalist based in Cairo and London. For several years he was Egypt correspondent for the British Guardian newspaper, covering the final stages of the Mubarak regime and the country’s subsequent revolutionary unrest. He has also reported from across the globe, producing stories on Gaza, South Africa, Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent; in 2012, his exposé on the deaths of African migrants in the Mediterranean was awarded “News Story of the Year” at the One World Media Awards. His first book, exploring the politics of resistance in Egypt, will be published by Penguin and Allen Lane next year.
Photo credit: U.S. Department of State