The arrest of Hossam Bahgat, the Egyptian human rights activist-turned-journalist, highlights the difficulties of resistance and the vulnerability of democracy in a web of increasingly restrictive laws that have materialized under the new Egyptian government.
Military intelligence must have known that Hossam Bahgat could not be arrested without a massive public outcry. He is too well regarded for his professional integrity and reliability and consequently too well connected both in Egypt and abroad. Likewise, Hossam must have known that even his connections could not keep him from being called in one day given the shrinking space for dissent of any kind.
Most activists I have talked to or read online have acknowledged that with the increasingly expansive adoption and enforcement of laws prohibiting political expression of any kind, arrest is likely in their future.
The story Bahgat wrote which landed him in custody called, A Coup Busted? was about the secret military trials and convictions of high ranking military officials supposedly connected to the Brotherhood for their participation in a coup plot. He reported that the trials took place. That is it. There is no vindication of those convicted, no overt political agenda other than the idea that this story is something the public ought to know about. What the story does is reveal dissent within the military, a taboo subject to report on in Egypt. It defies a possible desire to keep the coup plot and the convictions quiet. Bahgat was questioned by military intelligence and later released, but could still be charged by military prosecution for the story.
This is not the first piece of investigative reporting by Bahgat. He has written several challenging articles including a report on Mubarak's extensive wealth and another on the high number of jihadis pardoned by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces prior to the Brotherhood's election.
The human rights organization he founded, EIPR, has brought several complaints against Egypt to the African Commission on Human Rights. Although other journalists and activists have been detained for less, it seems that Bahgat's status had kept him fairly well protected until now. He is no stranger to political dissent, but the coup story is the one that finally got him called in.
I had myself been told by an editor of an Egyptian magazine I wrote for years before the Arab Spring that the military was the one thing no one could write about. Mubarak could be criticized and it would not automatically land you in a cell, but the military was different.
The Egyptian military has remained a black box, inscrutable from the outside and protected from criticism. What has changed is the intimacy of the presidency to the military. There is no longer even a blurred line between the military and the presidency since Sisi came to power.
Caught between a military government and increasing violence from Islamist groups, there is less and less space for peaceful dissent. Perceiving threat everywhere, the entire government is becoming a new sacred cow, inscrutable and unquestionable even to the most established and unimpeachable critical voices.
At the height of the Arab Spring, it seemed as if the march of history was moving towards participatory democracy and increasing liberty for Egyptian society. Sadly, history is not unidirectional. Instead there has been a reassertion of authoritarian governance. But it is the kind of authoritarianism that thrives within a bureaucracy; built inside a robust legal system of regulations which a forming a stranglehold on free speech and political dissent.
The criminal code under which Bahgat may be charged for the dissemination of information that disturbs public security is only one piece of legislation that is making life difficult for Egyptian society.
There has been a proliferation of new laws to limit speech of any kind. There is also the Protest law 107 from 2013 under which Yara Sallam, who incidentally works at the NGO Bahgat founded, was detained for attending a peaceful protest against the adoption of the law in question and was only recently released by presidential pardon.
The unreleased draft law updating Law no. 84 of 2002 Law of Associations is speculated to be even more restrictive than the last. The existing law has been criticized for among other things imprisonment for failing to register an NGO with the government. It was under the 2002 law that several Americans and Egyptians were convicted in 2013. And there is the new anti-terrorism law which stipulates high fines for any journalistic coverage of attacks not in line with the state's version. This web of laws bolstered by fears of potential threats to national security have provided a legal framework to a stifling political climate.
Dissent is an Egyptian institution. Many of the activists passing through jail now are second or even third generation political prisoners. Egyptian journalists, intellectuals, novelists, writers of t.v. and film and everyday people have used their voices in different ways to shape Egypt over the years.
For those of us who do not fetishize the vote and have always believed democracy is as much about voice and political dissent as it is about the ways in which citizens cast a ballot, the long democratic tradition in Egypt is again under threat. This tradition is being suffocated not at the hands of foreign agents or terrorists, but by the military's authoritarian control over Egyptian voices.
The $1.5 billion in U.S. military aid to Egypt was reinstated after having been temporarily suspended when Sisi seized power from the Brotherhood. It has not yet been reevaluated and should come under GAO scrutiny soon.
Although there was a human rights assessment done when the aid was reinstated, the extent to which the aid has been tied to human rights benchmarks is not clear. Despite calls to "rethink relations" between Egypt and the U.S., there is too much at stake to cut and run from Egypt now. However, it seems the U.S. should be explicit about what is expected in return for the aid.
Requesting the military to leave Egyptian journalists and activists alone seems a small ask in exchange for the billions they receive. It is not subtle. It may open the U.S. to charges of imperialism, but it seems unavoidable if America wants to protect itself from being complicit in the suppression of Egyptian democracy.