Egypt's brutality exemplifies the contortions of confused Western foreign policy

As part of its fight against terror the West is backing a repressive regime that has jailed 40,000 dissidents like Yara Sallam

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Yara Sallam was one of the most inspirational activists I met amid the Arab Spring uprisings. As Tahrir Square exploded in one of its many eruptions during 2011, she talked with a rare mixture of idealism, insight and integrity while we walked around Cairo's chaotic streets discussing events in her divided country. She was passionate, having seen friends gassed and protesters shot, but also funny and realistic about the future.

She knew revolutions can take time, that the path to democracy could be long and painful. I asked Yara how she felt about the Muslim Brotherhood winning an election in her country? If it was a fair vote then so be it, she replied, since even their threat was preferable to the ruthless generals who had run Egypt for so many years. When I said I was surprised by this answer from an apparently Westernised woman, she smiled and reminded me she was an Arab.

I recalled this liberal young lawyer's answer often as the Brothers first won power, then were ousted last year in a military coup. She featured in two articles I wrote. Her final words to me back then were a plea for peace and unity, saying that if you were being beaten by the police or tortured in jail it did not make much difference whether you were a liberal or an Islamist. Sadly, I fear she now understands this simple truth more than ever.

Last weekend Yara was buying a bottle of water from a roadside kiosk with her cousin when nearby protesters were set upon by men in civilian clothes. Then security forces swept in, dispersing the protest with tear gas and arresting 30 people – among them Yara. Friends assume she was targeted as a prominent human rights campaigner. Now she is in Kanater prison, one of an estimated 40,000 dissidents arrested since the coup.

Such events are common these days in Egypt. Returning last month to cover the stage-managed coronation as president of the former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, I met a man who went to buy a new car and found himself cradling a dying man after security forces opened fire on another protest. This call-centre worker ended up being abused, beaten, tortured and threatened with rape, then stuffed in a stinking cell with 70 other men. He was held without trial for almost a month.

Yara, away from the city at the time, emailed me to say Egypt was witnessing "interesting times". That is one way of putting it. Observers often claim that the country has completed a circle, ousting Hosni Mubarak only to return again into the embrace of another army hardman. But human rights groups say the repression is much worse, with about 1,600 people killed and 10 times that number jailed since the coup. "This is the worst we have seen in post-colonial Egyptian history," one leading activist told me.

The harsh face of this regime was exposed again last week with three al-Jazeera journalists jailed for seven years on trumped-up charges relating to terrorism. The evidence was ludicrous, such as saying their standard-issue satellite phone was spying equipment. This was a show trial designed to send a warning to Qatar, the owner of the channel and backer of the Muslim Brotherhood. Just days before came confirmation of mass death sentences on 183 of the group's supporters, accused of attacking a police station after another trial that lawyers said was farcical and based on flimsy evidence.

The West mouths platitudes of condemnation. Yet Britain and the United States refuse to mention the word "coup" despite the army ousting an elected government – and now their cash flows again to the generals. Even as those al-Jazeera journalists sat in their cells awaiting confirmation of their worst fears, the US vice-president met Sisi and unlocked huge sums of military aid frozen since the ousting of Mohamed Morsi. Yet the chairman of the Senate aid committee denounces this "dictatorship run amok".

Morsi's sectarian government was a disaster. Talking to prominent Egyptians who back Sisi's takeover, it is easy to understand their anxious desire for stability with the economy crashing, tourism dissipating and outside investment disappearing. But have no illusions: the price is being paid by the crushing of human rights and horrendous repression, storing up problems for the future as seen so often in the past. The tired old mantra of stability is being chanted again in a troubled region and uncertain world.

This shattered nation – home to one in four Arabs – exemplifies the contortions of confused Western foreign policy. We back some despotic strongmen in the region while seeking the overthrow of others. We collude with a struggle purporting to be against political Islam, yet cuddle up to autocratic monarchs who seed its most corrosive strand around the world. We claim to be fighting a war on terror, yet end up boosting the most militant extremists along with our long-term foes in Iran. No wonder Western influence is dwindling.

Tony Blair is perhaps the best-known foreign proponent of the absurd argument that Sisi is putting Egypt back on the path to democracy, an idea so insulting to those battered dissidents languishing behind bars because they fought for the values he claims to espouse. The arrest of Yara proves that the people being rounded up are not just militant Islamists, as alleged by defenders of the regime: they are also leftists and liberals, democrats and human rights defenders.

"We fought for years, so why should we give up now?", Yara said to me as the revolution which began with such optimism turned brutal, and the army, hailed as liberators from despotism, was shooting out the eyes of protesters. "Our spirit will never be broken."

Let us hope that remains true today.

twitter.com/@ianbirrell

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