After meeting with Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said he had raised human rights concerns and that the new Egyptian president "gave me a very strong sense of his commitment" to reconsider the government's policies. He also said that Washington had restored military aid to Egypt, promising early delivery of 10 attack helicopters.
We'll soon find out if el-Sissi is truly willing to reconsider and whether the assistance will give us much leverage. On Monday, an Egyptian court convicted three respected journalists on charges of helping a terrorist organization. Kerry said the verdict was "chilling and draconian" and called the Egyptian foreign minister to object.
He had good reason for complaint. The supposed terrorist organization is the Muslim Brotherhood, which was long banned in Egypt but nonetheless represents the biggest political group in the country. In 2012, in their first authentic democratic election, Egyptians gave the presidency to Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood.
But the military overthrew Morsi after he had been in office only a year. Since then, the generals in charge have been targeting the group, mainly to keep their iron hold on power. "The government seems motivated solely by its desire to crush a major opposition movement," says Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch.
This trial is just the latest chapter in the crackdown on dissent that began last year. Even so, the families of the defendants expected acquittals because the prosecution's case was so laughably weak.
The three were reporters for the Qatar-based English-language network of Al-Jazeera. The evidence against them included a strange array of irrelevant items, from videos of horses to a song by multi-instrumentalist and singer Gotye. The presiding judge told them in May that if they wanted copies of the stories that they allegedly fabricated, they would have to pay $170,000 – and then upbraided their lawyers for failing to do so.
Prosecutors couldn't be bothered to offer proof that the reports were faked or that those charged had anything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood. One of the defendants has both Egyptian and Canadian citizenship and drinks alcohol, hardly the profile of a zealous Islamist. Another is an Australian who had been in the country only a few days when he was arrested.
But it didn't matter. All three received sentences of seven years in prison for helping terrorists and undermining national security. One got an additional three years for possession of a weapon — a spent bullet casing he found at a protest and kept as a memento. Courtroom spectators were shocked when the guilty verdict was announced.
The defendant's real crimes were twofold: practicing journalism under a government that wants to suppress independent sources of information and working for a news organization underwritten by a government, Qatar's, that supports the Muslim Brotherhood.
El-Sissi could pardon these men or he could commute their sentences. Either action would be better than doing nothing.
What he really needs to do is ease off his fierce attack on peaceful opposition and open up space in which Egyptians can debate their future. It seems that what scares the regime most is not terrorism, but truth.