They could have gone to another friendly city in the Middle East or Europe, but a group of leading Egyptian opposition figures chose Brussels to launch their initiative to restore the democratic path spearheaded by the January 25 Revolution. Being the headquarters of the EU, the underlying intent was clear; to ensure that their message resounded in the corridors of European decision-making.
Putting aside the politics and tangled economic interests, there is much more that binds together the people on both sides of the Mediterranean. They share a common humanity that recognises the inherent dignity of all people, among them the right to life, liberty and security of person. Alas the systematic rape of civil liberties and freedoms in Egypt now threatens to undermine the foundations of peace and justice that lie at the heart of the relationship.
The case of the Al Jazeera hunger-striker Abdullah Al-Shamy epitomises the Egyptian tragedy. After refusing food for more than 100 days his physical functions are now in a state of rapid decline. Yet his mental capacity remains as clear as ever; he is focussed and persuasive, one of four Al Jazeera journalists – prisoners of conscience – incarcerated simply because they refused to compromise the ethics of their profession. A letter smuggled out of his cell was sent to the EU and speaks directly to Baroness Catherine Ashton, Europe’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
From the darkness of his prison cell Al-Shamy said that he came to know that the European Union has decided to monitor Egypt’s upcoming elections and that Ashton was happy with the steps taken by Egypt toward democracy.
“I am sure, deep down, she must realise that the basis for any democracy is the freedom of press,” he said. “How can Ashton, I wonder, trust a democracy without a free press, at a time when I am facing a slow death alongside other journalists?” It was an honest question which deserves an honest answer.
In closing his letter, the newly-married journalist again addressed Cathy Ashton, asserting that everything comes to an end and history will only perpetuate the courageous stands one takes: “I think it is not too late to take such a stand.”
Implicit in the entire text of this letter is an ominous reminder that should any harm befall him, his jailers will bear criminal and legal responsibility but the EU will share the moral responsibility.
The case of Abdullah Al-Shamy and all the victims of the 3 July coup is no less tragic than the tens of thousands who were “disappeared” in Argentina during its “Dirty War” between 1976 and 1983. There, the military dictatorship led by General Jorge Rafael Videla led a brutal campaign against left-wing political opposition. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed.
Argentina cleared the way for other right-wing military dictators to commit similar crimes; Chile under Augusto Pinochet is the most notorious. In this they were supported by the Reagan administration in the US and Margaret Thatcher in Britain. Even after Pinochet’s 1999 arrest in the UK, Thatcher stood by the former dictator shamelessly.
There is a chilling and macabre parallel between the Argentinian junta and its Egyptian counterpart. While the former projected itself as a regional vanguard against left-wing politics, the latter has taken upon itself a mission to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt and other parts of the region.
In Latin America, right-wing dictatorships looked to the Argentine military for operational support and techniques. Similarly today, anti-democratic forces across the Middle East, including Israel, view the Egyptian military as an indispensable ally. They court the Cairo regime not to liberate Palestine, but for help in reversing the popular demands for democracy and change.
Ultimately, the generals who led the military dictatorships and committed gross crimes against humanity had their reckoning. Some, like Videla, died in a prison cell for their crimes. Of course, their political masters and backers like Reagan and Thatcher were never brought to justice or asked to account for aiding, abetting or supporting these infamous regimes. Similarly, those who back Al-Sisi and his clique may also never have to face the music, even if many thousands more are detained, tortured and killed.
The EU may insist that it will send monitors to oversee and bless the farcical presidential elections, but the spirit of Abdullah Al-Shamy and all the other prisoners of conscience overshadows such a clear condoning of what has taken place in Egypt since last June, massacres and all. Al-Shamy believes that the prisoners are “walking a path that will make the future better than the past… and… it will be a happy one indeed.”
Who can disagree with them? Justice always trumps injustice and is the bedrock of a genuine democracy, something that Cathy Ashton and her advisers should reflect on as they give their blessing to Al-Sisi and his brutal military coup.
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