The journalists, who are accused of aiding the banned Muslim Brotherhood, are an important test of Egypt’s new military government’s attitudes toward freedom of the press; yet freedom of the press is not a be-all end-all of good governance.
In all likelihood, the journalists will be tried and convicted, and quietly released in about a year’s time, when Egyptian officials have tired of answering questions on the matter and no longer feel the need to prove the state’s strength.
Freedom of the press, generally speaking, is important only when the government either needs Western funding or wants to create an open, democratic society (not every leader’s priority, to the surprise of many Western liberals).
The military government, which retook power last July after the Brotherhood’s candidate refused to step down after weeks of popular protest, has promised elections for the end of May. There are only two candidates; populist General Fatah al-Sisi and secular nationalist Hambdeen Sabahi. Al-Sisi is leading polls by 72 percent to two percent, essentially guaranteeing him the presidency.
Al-Sisi led the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, decrying them as a terrorist organization. In response, they labelled him a tyrant. Unfortunately for the U.S., which has quietly backed the coup, the Brotherhood has a stronger case.
Al-Sisi’s coup ended Egypt’s initial experiment with democracy early, with some cause; the Brotherhood-written constitution and presidency did not please the population, which is one of the more secular and liberal in the Arab world.
The issue of press freedom in a time of political upheaval is an important one. For the sake of unity, we may excuse press restrictions — yet this trial is largely intended to threaten snooping journalists and silence the Brotherhood by limiting press contact, rather than to calm an agitated population.
From a Western, pro-democratic standpoint, to prove its dedication to the rule of democracy in the upcoming elections and al-Sisi’s inevitable term as President, the military government must show it understands the multifaceted nature of democracy, including freedom of the press. Thus, the case might define the willingness of Western (and Gulf) allies to help the new government get on its feet after the election.
Yet this standpoint assumes democracy is always the best way to rule of country; it isn’t. Especially in poorer, less-informed and more corrupt nations, democracy can slow necessary reform and increase the role of ethnicity in party politics.
It is entirely possible for al-Sisi to create a modern, successful Egypt without a fully democratic society. Examples come in abundance from East Asia, where nations like Singapore and South Korea used strong single-party states to direct development initiatives, creating powerful middle classes within a few decades. However, they have since democratized significantly (Singapore is on the edge of finally voting out their ruling party; Korea did so more than a decade ago).
Yet eventually, Egypt will have to answer this question. Even the Chinese have admitted that democracy is an eventual goal; in 2007, ex-Premier Hu Jintao said China needed to “expand people’s democracy and ensure that they are masters of the country.”
Egypt can make its own decisions visa vis the pace of democratization; the world is tired of Western-pushed democracy. In the meantime, al-Sisi should do all he can to ensure Egypt’s economic recovery and an equal distribution of resources, all the while minimizing state corruption and human suffering.