By Salma Khamis
For anyone who has been following Egyptian affairs, this past month’s headlines have provided for a curious case of seemingly implausible coincidences. Coming from a country that sometimes seems to be purposely trying to embarrass itself on the international stage (see: the army-financed AIDS-curing laser machine), I must say that PR mishaps are no stranger to the Egyptian government. Unfortunately, the events of this month only serve to reinforce this fact.
The first case in point: the tragic September 13th accidental killing of 8 Mexican tourists by an army airstrike in the Egyptian White Desert. In every sense of the word, this event was a domestic and diplomatic catastrophe, and it should have been treated as such. Rather, internally, Egyptian media outlets chose to focus on whether or not the tourists should have been where they were without the army’s authorization. Externally, President Abdelfattah El Sisi, the presumed highly skilled arbiter of diplomacy, chose to congratulate Mexico on the occasion of the Mexican Independence Day, whilst in mid-condolence-speech regarding eight of their nationals who perished on Egyptian soil for absolutely no reason other than institutional incompetence.
Fast-forward to September 23 and France’s announcement that it has decided to reroute its previously Russia-bound Mistral helicopters to Egypt. As any freshman IR student could tell you, this is a decision with profound geopolitical motivations and consequences. On the one hand, increased Russian military intervention in Syria undoubtedly played a role in determining whether or not the weapons made it to Putin. On the other hand, there could not possibly be a more pronounced endorsement of Sisi and the path upon which he is leading his country than an internationally advertised arms deal such as this.
Despite limited French criticism of the Egyptian government’s human rights abuses, it was only during the opening ceremony for the expansion of the Suez Canal (itself a vestige of French influence in the country) that the speculation regarding warming Franco-Egyptian relations was confirmed. Sitting side by side with El-Sisi, French President François Hollande seemed every bit as impressed as Egyptian liberals were infuriated. The visual of a P5 country president sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Sisi served as a loud and clear confirmation, not only of the economic soundness of the canal expansion (a notion widely contested by academics); but of all that Sisi has become notorious for in barely over a year of being in office: forced disappearances, mass death sentences, dwindling academic freedom, and a whole host of other “democratizing” pursuits.
Adding yet another ‘coincidental’ insult to injury, on the same day the French government announced the Egyptian arms deal, the Egyptian government announced that Sisi had decided to presidentially pardon 100 political prisoners. Out of these 100 prisoners, the names of two in particular caught the world’s attention: Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed who, up until their arrest in 2013 on terrorism allegations, worked in Al-Jazeera’s Cairo bureau. Despite being a Canadian national, Fahmy could not secure his release through diplomatic efforts in what had become an international controversy as the Egyptian government continued to defy foreign pressure to release the Al-Jazeera journalist. Predictably, Sisi was hailed domestically for his act of historically unprecedented benevolence.
I am fully aware of the dangers of having hypothesized a correlation between a set of variables, only to make it seem like there are no two ways about it. This sequence of events could very well be purely coincidental and, as a cynical Egyptian observing events from afar, I could be making an unfair correlation between a number of factors that bear little relevance to one another. It is not like Sisi was subsequently making a trip to the United States the very next day after pardoning these prisoners, attempting to put the final nail in the coffin of Egypt’s bad press.
The fact of the matter is, foreign and domestic analysts alike should not be commending President Sisi for the decision to pardon 100 political prisoners who should not even have been arrested in the first place. To commend his efforts is to be complicit in justifying the need for their initial arrest and subsequent detainment under blanket “anti-terrorism” laws that serve only to terrorize an entire population into silence. The decision to pardon these prisoners comes not from Sisi’s newly found conviction in the sanctity of human rights, but from a need to save face after a month of spectacularly unfavorable press. Even if the prospects of being elected for a second term have already been deemed an inevitability in domestic discourse, Sisi still has to salvage his image abroad.
Rather than commending Sisi for pardoning 100 unjustly detained political prisoners, we should question the premise upon which the pardon was issued. Bartering the livelihood of 100 individuals for the acquisition of weaponry or redemption of diplomatic stature is not only irresponsible, but provides room for the future manipulation of domestic affairs to save face on the international stage.
When push comes to shove, what commentators do not want to admit in their analysis of Egyptian affairs is that all of these coincidences, or mishaps, or temporary setbacks, or whatever it is we want to call them; they are but symptoms of an overarching and undeniable institutional failure that needs to be addressed before it morphs itself into yet another global embarrassment… or twenty.