Since leading a coup against the elected government of Mohamed Morsi last July, Gen. Sissi has turned Egypt’s state media into a propaganda apparatus that has made virulent anti-Americanism a touchstone. Television channels and newspapers regularly broadcast vicious attacks on U.S. officials and diplomats and lend credence to wild conspiracy theories about Western plots against Egypt.
Now the regime has taken the step — unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history — of jailing and prosecuting professional Western journalists reporting from Cairo.
On Dec. 29, security forces raided a hotel room being used as a production office by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera’s English language channel. A creepy video broadcast on Egyptian television Monday showed how police interrogated and then arrested Peter Greste, an Australian correspondent, and Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian television producer. Both are well-known professionals: Mr. Fahmy previously worked for CNN; Mr. Greste has reported across the world for Reuters, the BBC and other organizations.
During weeks of imprisonment, the journalists and their colleagues sought to persuade authorities that they were “caught in the middle of a political struggle that is not my own,” as Mr. Greste put it in a letter from Cairo’s Tora prison. Yet last week prosecutors raised the stakes, charging the two journalists and 18 others with supporting a terrorist organization and broadcasting false information. Three other foreign nationals were charged: two Britons who are outside Egypt and Dutch freelancer Rena Netjes, who fled the country Monday.
Most of those being prosecuted are affiliated with Al Jazeera, which the regime accuses of conspiring with the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, while the channel (and the Qatari government) was relatively supportive of the Morsi administration, the charges are ludicrous. Ms. Netjes, who did not work for Al Jazeera, believes she was indicted simply because she interviewed Mr. Fahmy for a story.
Mr. Greste wrote from prison that he had been in Egypt only a few weeks on a get-acquainted tour. “The fact that we were arrested for what seems to be a set of relatively uncontroversial stories tells us a lot about what counts as ‘normal’ and what is dangerous in post-revolutionary Egypt,” he wrote.
The arrests add to a growing pile of evidence contravening the Obama administration’s contention that the new regime is carrying out a transition to democracy. In a departure from its usually supportive rhetoric, the State Department last week condemned the prosecution of journalists, saying it “is wrong and demonstrates an egregious disregard for the protection of basic rights and freedoms.” The administration must certify to Congress that Egypt “is taking steps toward a democratic transition” in order to release $1.5 billion in annual aid. It should inform Gen. Sissi that it cannot do that while journalists are being prosecuted.