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

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock, whose expression was coveted by Alex Salmond as a young man  

Leonard Nimroy: Why Spock was the blackest person on the Enterprise

Bonnie Greer
 

Leonard Nimroy: Spock made me feel like it was good to be the weird kid

Matthew James
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?