Under President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood turned Egypt into an economic abyss. Foreign investment collapsed, post-Mubarak democratic protections frayed, and Egypt sank into sectarianism.
Then Egypt’s Army broke free from Morsi’s leash. Its second revolution has had its costs, but today foreign investment is returning, Egypt’s economy is strengthening, and Salafi-Jihadist terrorists are on the defensive. Indeed, this weekend’s announcement of a newly discovered gas field offers new capital possibilities.
Still, Egypt has a big problem: the continuing degradation of its civil society. On Saturday, three Al Jazeera journalists, Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed, and Peter Greste, were each sentenced to three years in prison for supposed collusion with the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Fahmy and Mohamed are in prison, but Greste, an Australian citizen, was deported earlier this year. (The three were previously convicted, but those convictions were overturned.)
This matters. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi wants to portray Egypt as a modern and aspirational nation. But with journalists imprisoned on cockamamie charges, the truth is abundantly clear. Egypt has a long way to go before it becomes a democracy of justice. Because — be in no doubt — these journalists are suffering injustice. Though it is now banned, the Muslim Brotherhood was (and I would say remains) a potent force in Egyptian political thought. It required the journalistic scrutiny that Fahmy, Mohamed, and Greste gave it.
The Obama administration has very little credibility with President el-Sisi.
Their plight highlights America’s inevitable role in supporting freedom and justice in the world. It’s a role that is at once unfair (no other nation else steps up) and intrinsically pure (our core values are human values). And not so long ago, the plight of these journalists — and the countless other political prisoners the Egyptian government now holds — would have been a cause that the United States could take on. As Margaret Weiss has explained, using pressure in a calibrated but forceful fashion, the Bush administration significantly advanced Egyptian civil society. Why was the Bush administration able do so? Because it had credibility with Mubarak. In contrast, the Obama administration has very little credibility with President el-Sisi. That reality is attested by Egypt’s overt realignment toward Russia, and it is a direct product of President Obama’s Middle Eastern prevarication.
Consider a key example. Egypt has sought U.S. leadership to deny the Islamic State safe harbor. Instead, President Obama has doubled down on his strategy of fundamentally inadequate half measures. Correspondingly, American influence in Egypt has perished. After all, from the perspective of el-Sisi, America is an unreliable ally.
As he sees it, President Obama’s first perceived betrayal — abandoning Mubarak in 2011 — is now matched by U.S. disinterest in ISIS’s terror campaign against Egyptian citizens (remember the February murder of Coptic Christians on the beach). And while Mubarak’s fall from power was inevitable (those who say otherwise neglect the Middle Eastern propaganda catastrophe that would have ensued had America opposed a popular revolution), President Obama’s flailing confusion at the time is remembered in Cairo. And since then, Obama has done nothing to restore confidence. As such, el-Sisi is sidestepping the Obama administration with open derision.
So while three journalists are relatively unimportant in the context of other humanitarian catastrophes — such as the Syrian refugee crisis — their suffering exemplifies the variable costs of absent American power. Ultimately, without an America that is both active and trusted in the Middle East, rulers — whether in Egypt or Saudi Arabia — have little incentive to pursue freedom and justice.