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Opinion

Egypt: A new dawn for autocracy

Sisi regime deals a final blow to democratic rule in Egypt with sentencing of Al Jazeera journalists.

Last updated: 23 Jun 2014 12:48
Toby Cadman

Toby Cadman is an international criminal law specialist. He is a Barrister member at Nine Bedford Row International Chambers in London and a member of the International Criminal Bureau in The Hague.
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Three Al Jazeera journalists have been convicted and sentenced to serve at least seven years in detention, writes Cadman [EPA]

Francois-Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de plume, Voltaire, is often attributed as having said: "I disagree with every word you utter but will defend to the death your right to say it."

In fact, the remarks came from Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English author describing Voltaire's passion for freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is not just important; it is essential to any democracy. A free press does not simply report on issues of the day, it is there to ensure that governments are held accountable to its people and that the people have a voice.

The decision issued on June 23 in Egypt is a further erosion of that accountability. In fact, it is the last nail in the coffin for democracy in Egypt. The three Al Jazeera journalists who have been detained in inhuman and degrading conditions in Egypt have been convicted and sentenced to serve at least seven years in detention on charges of aiding terrorists and endangering national security. The conditions under which they were tried were a flagrant denial of justice and demonstrate the military regime's iron rule.

There have been countless trials of late in Egypt that have flown in the face of justice. Numerous trials have shown that the judicial system is being used as a tool of the state to silence dissent, and to punish those who may have a different point of view than the farcically elected government.

A new blow

This decision, however, strikes a new blow. The trial and subsequent decision to convict shows just how far along the road to an authoritarian state Egypt has reverted.

Arguably what is of equal importance perhaps is to assess how the international community has reacted to the descent into chaos and authoritarian rule. What Egypt needs now is for the international community to take note of the very dangerous path the current government is taking. Regrettably, it would appear that despite the concerns raised by the military coup, there is nonetheless shameful hypocrisy displayed by both the European Union and the US. Both applauded the cry for change in Egypt. Both applauded the first free and independent elections in which President Mohamed Morsi was elected, and yet, neither condemned the coup d'etat nor the subsequent military actions that have left hundreds, if not thousands, dead.

Thousands have been arrested and hundreds sentenced to death, yet where is the condemnation of the undermining of the rule of law, and dismantling of fundamental rights? No such condemnation was forthcoming. Bizarrely, it appears that the position was seen as quite the opposite.

Thousands have been arrested and hundreds sentenced to death, yet where is the condemnation of the undermining of the rule of law, and dismantling of fundamental rights? No such condemnation was forthcoming. Bizarrely, it appears that the position was seen as quite the opposite.

Baroness Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the European Union, noted that she was happy with the steps taken by Egypt towards democracy. How is it possible that anyone can be happy with such steps, when the reality is that such steps mean the punishment of dissent, the restriction of the free press, and the arrest and detention of those who report something that the state does not like? It is shameful to advocate for such an approach.

Farcical process

This is the position that we are faced with in Egypt. The US and the European Union seemingly now support an authoritarian regime that seized power by force, that cannot argue that it now has a mandate from the people given that the election process was so fundamentally flawed to be rendered farcical.

One must ask the question as to how the West can support a regime that detains and imprisons journalists for merely reporting on the current situation. Is this really the sort of regime that the international community should be given credibility to? Is this really the sort of regime that the international community should be supplying weapons to?

It is noted that the US recently recommenced the supply of military aid to Egypt despite the oppression of its own people and despite the lack of basic democratic rights for its people. The foreign policy of both the US and the European Union towards Egypt is assisting authoritarian rule and is giving credibility, on the international stage, to a regime that has become dictatorial.

The decision today by the court must serve as a wake-up call for the international community. The three Al Jazeera journalists were imprisoned for seven years and three more convicted in their absence were sentenced to ten-year terms. This is not a progressive government. The rule of law has now collapsed. The international community must raise its voice and diplomatic relations must be severed until the judgements are overturned and the journalists are released. The US must immediately freeze military aid. The European Union must immediately withdraw its support and publicly condemn the recent verdicts.

The only reaction justifiable from the international community now, is a dramatic rethink of its policy towards Egypt.

There is no other option, because to tolerate is to encourage.

Toby Cadman is an international criminal law specialist. He is a Barrister member at Nine Bedford Row International Chambers in London and a member of the International Criminal Bureau in The Hague.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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