In yet another sign of the widening crackdown on political freedoms in Egypt, security forces detained a team of journalists working for Al Jazeera on Sunday, allegedly for the crime of meeting with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and for broadcasting “false news” that “damaged national security.” Just a week after the banned political group was formally named a terrorist organization, it should come as no surprise that the Brotherhood’s new designation is being deployed to further marginalize its supporters– not to mention more robustly enforcing the military-backed government’s increasing authoritarianism.
The Al Jazeera arrests are not likely to raise an outcry beyond rights groups and Brotherhood supporters; the backlash against the network and its Qatari backers has not subsided following the July coup that deposed Mohammed Morsi. Qatar’s financial support of Egypt during Morsi’s presidency — along with Al Jazeera’s perceived bias in favor of his government — have made both the network and the Gulf nation extremely unpopular in Egypt. Though Qatar has largely fallen in line with the Egypt policy of its Gulf neighbors following the coup, the prominence of this narrative has provided an effective buffer against criticism of the government’s crackdowns on the network.
These crackdowns are part of a broader project to vilify not just the Brotherhood and its supporters but any critics of the military regime. The rapid entrenchment of the military’s power following the coup would have inspired the envy of any of the country’s former military dictators. Under the auspices of military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the overwhelming embrace of ultra-nationalistic, pro-military fervor — and the vilification of the Brotherhood, its supporters, and even perceived sympathizers — has contributed to the extreme polarization in the country. While politically fraught, it is an environment conducive to the enforcement of the military’s agenda.
Following the attack on a security site in Mansoura last week, the link between political dissent and terrorism that Egyptian authorities have been pushing since the Brotherhood’s ouster has become far more explicit (media outlets have also seized imagery from the attack, along with the specter of terrorism in general, in promos urging Egyptians to vote “yes” in January’s constitutional referendum). Yes, it was only a matter of time before the group was officially labeled a terrorist organization. But by doing so the government has formalized the “with us or against us” mentality permeating Egyptian society which has made legitimate protest against the military government increasingly difficult, if not impossible.
Be it interviewing political pariahs, displaying the four-fingered “Rabaa” salute, or “protesting without permission” (a charge routinely leveled against activists), acceptable political dissent is rapidly losing breathing space — something that should bode ill not just for the Brotherhood or other critics of the military government, but also for Egypt’s democratic future. Though if the recently reshuffled political transition roadmap announced on Monday is anything to go by, crackdowns on dissent are not the only front in this swift monopolization of power by the military rulers.