The world must not look on in silence as Egyptian media and civil society get steamrolled

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Graffiti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, October 2012.
Graffiti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, October 2012.
© Amnesty International

This Saturday, three top journalists go on trial in Egypt. For the country’s independent media and civil society, the stakes have never been higher. But it’s the international community whose credibility is now on the line.

Press Syndicate head Yahia Galash and board members Khaled Elbalshy and Gamal Abd el-Reheem are facing trial by a court system which has already jailed thousands of the government’s critics and political opponents.

The three are charged with “harbouring suspects” and “publishing false news”. Their real “crime”? Standing up for freedom of expression.

Over the last two months, the Press Syndicate has been at the heart of a fight for fundamental freedoms in Egypt. Security forces responded to a protest outside the syndicate in April by arresting at least 1,300 people across the country. On 1 May, armed security forces raided the Press Syndicate for the first time in its 75-year history, arresting two journalists wanted for “inciting protests”. When the Syndicate protested, prosecutors hauled in three of its top journalists for questioning and then sent them to court.

The message is clear: There is nowhere to run. There is nowhere left to hide. And no-one is untouchable.

Those arrested in the crackdown include media moguls, opposition-linked journalists, veteran human rights defenders and smartphone-savvy millennials.

Many of the leading activists who backed President Morsi’s ousting three years ago are today in prison.

The arrests have dealt a body blow to Egypt’s independent civil society. Top human rights lawyer Malek Adly faces charges of attempting to overthrow the State and spreading “rumours” after he took the government to court over the Red Sea islands.

Ahmed Abdallah, of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, faces multiple charges under the Counter-terrorism Law, the Protest Law and the Penal Code. His colleague Mina Thabet, who faces the same charges, was just released on bail.

The arrests come as the authorities dust off a five-year-old investigation into human rights groups, questioning their staff, attempting to freeze their assets and banning human rights defenders from travelling abroad.

Some can’t leave. Others can’t stay. On Monday passport officials barred Nazra for Feminist Studies Director Mozn Hassan from leaving the country, while security forces booted out broadcast journalist Lilian Daoud.

President al-Sisi has said that 2016 is the “year of youth”, but young men and women have paid a high price for questioning the authorities. Members of the satirist group Street Children have languished in detention since May for mocking the government over the Red Sea islands.

Another celebrated young activist, Sanaa Seif, is serving a six-month prison sentence for “insulting a public official”, after she criticized a prosecutor for questioning her over her support for the recent protests.

Egypt’s independent civil society is facing an existential threat, but its international partners are still pushing weapons instead of human rights.

Just last week, US lawmakers proposed a further US$1.3 billion dollars’ worth of funding for Egypt’s armed forces with almost no strings attached.

Research by Amnesty International has also found that almost half of EU States have flouted the bloc’s own ban on arming the country’s security forces.

The States which say they want “stability and security” in Egypt have been rearming its security forces, which since 2011 have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of peaceful protesters.

That strategy is dangerous and short-sighted.

Instead of continuing to bankroll the Egyptian military, world leaders must stand against Egypt’s crackdown. They should stop the arms transfers that fuel repression. Speaking up for embattled journalists, human rights defenders and protesters is crucial but no longer enough.

Only Egyptians have the right to comment on the country’s internal affairs, the foreign minister said recently.

Tell that to the people now filling the country’s jails, while the international community arms the security apparatus that put them there.

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