One day after an Egyptian court sparked an international outcry by sentencing three Al Jazeera journalists to prison, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has stepped into the fray — by absolving his government of any responsibility over the controversial verdict. On Tuesday, the former military chief said he would not “interfere” with the country’s judiciary following calls for the leader to intervene in order to secure the journalists’ release.
Sisi’s defiance in the face of global outrage is not surprising, nor is his robust defense of the country’s judiciary:
We will not interfere in judicial matters because the Egyptian judiciary is an independent and exalted judiciary. If we desire (strong) state institutions we must respect court rulings and not comment on them even if others don’t understand these rulings.
The constant refrain around the Egyptian judiciary’s independence may be based in some truth but it is deployed by Sisi and other proponents of his military-led government as a means of distancing the country’s political leadership from unpopular rulings while boosting the status of the institution — a move that simultaneously curries favor among unapologetically partisan judicial authorities.
The idea that Sisi would exercise his right as president to issue a pardon or commute the sentences of the three imprisoned journalists is far fetched. After all, the leader (along with the rest of the military government) has over the past year shown little hesitation in flouting the concerns of the international community, with practically no consequences no less. While Washington made a show of withholding aid earlier this year, it has nonetheless continued to support the Sisi government, even approving the release of promised Apache helicopters just this weekend amid the current outcry.
Sisi realizes that the cost of standing up to largely perfunctory condemnation from western governments is far outweighed by the benefits of elevating the country’s judiciary while doubling down on the authoritarian scare tactics that even his strongman predecessor Hosni Mubarak would have shied away from. As poorly received as this verdict may have been, Sisi knows his audience at home and is well aware that his defiant posture in the face of foreign criticism only boosts his own position. The real challenge domestically will not center on media freedoms or judicial reform but, rather, the fallout of planned austerity measures.