Egypt's military government will never be legitimate until it stops haphazardly jailing scores of political prisoners.
"Constructing democratic institutions and political infrastructure cannot be done overnight," intones Amr Moussa, head of the drafting committee for Egypt's new constitution. Perhaps. But you know what can be done overnight? Releasing the vast array of political prisoners being held in horrific conditions as part of a concerted effort by Egypt's resurgent security state to criminalize dissent and silence critical voices.
For all of the nationalist and anti-American posturing in its state-backed media, Egypt's military-backed government keenly desires international approval for its new constitution. Nothing of the sort should be granted as long as non-violent political activists like Ahmed Maher and independent journalists like Mohamed Fahmy suffer in prison. Washington, the European Union, and every self-respecting electoral observation NGO should make the release of these political prisoners an absolute condition for bestowing any recognition or legitimacy upon next week's constitutional referendum.
The trial of three leading activists, Mohamed Adel, Ahmed Douma, and Ahmed Maher, was postponed yesterday. So was the show trial of former President Mohamed Morsi. Neither hearing was likely to produce anything resembling justice from the transparently politicized courts anyway, any more than did the trials of Alaa Abdel Fattah and Mona Seif or Maheinour al-Massry and Hassan Mustafa -- or legions of less famous activists. Canadian citizenship hasn't helped the well-respected journalist (and Foreign Policy contributor) Mohamed Fahmy against absurd charges of terrorist conspiracy. And that's not even counting the untold number of members of the criminalized Muslim Brotherhood being held on trumped up terrorism charges -- with their assets frozen, their passports confiscated, their charities closed.
Egypt's security services were able to tap into well-cultivated mistrust of the Muslim Brotherhood at home and abroad to justify its initial crackdown. But the intense animosity between the Brotherhood and many activists shouldn't mask the reality that the campaign against the "terrorist" Muslim Brotherhood and the campaign against other political activists and independent voices are manifestations of the same political project. Both aim at crushing the culture of protest which overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak and restoring the "normality" of a carefully managed authoritarian regime. The arrests and public defamation campaigns aimed at restoring the fear and disengagement which has always been so vital to maintaining authoritarian regimes. The architects of the coup hoped to rebuild that barrier of fear which had been so famously shattered by the January 25 uprising.
But this campaign has taken such an absurdist turn that fear has already turned to mockery. Nobody can really deny that it's funny to see the prosecution of a puppet as a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist agent. Who can respect a government waging war against the number "4"? It's hard not to roll your eyes at the joyfully feverish paranoia of an Egyptian newspaper reporting that Angelina Jolie is plotting on behalf of the Brotherhood or a former Constitutional Court judge raving about America conspiring with them against Egypt. And who can take seriously a constitutional referendum where people are being arrested for posting signs urging a "no" vote?
The hilarity over the investigation of terrorist puppets is a bit unseemly when it distracts attention from the deadly serious conditions under which Ahmed Maher, Mohamed Fahmy, and so many other political prisoners continue to suffer. But exposing Egypt's absurdist repression does matter, at home and abroad. The domestic ridicule could be a leading indicator that Egypt's political fever is breaking, at least in the leading edges of the public sphere. But that alone will be cold comfort to the citizens rotting in prison or defamed in the media. It will not stop the heavy-handed wave of propaganda to come about the Brotherhood's alleged terrorism or the April 6 Movement's "treason"; nor will it undermine widespread public embrace of the new demonology. The regime and its security services have the upper hand for now, and dissenters will continue to struggle on the margins at high personal cost. But the growing ranks of critics disgusted with the excesses of the new regime suggests that the fear barrier will not be so easily restored.
Right now, Egypt's roadmap leads not towards anything resembling democracy or even stability but towards greater repression, escalating insurgency, and continuing political failure. Egypt's current leadership may dream of becoming a something like a big United Arab Emirates, devoid of Muslim Brothers, street protests, or democratic politics. Instead, it is turning Egypt into a new Bahrain: dependent on Saudi Arabia, controlled by unaccountable security services, riven by increasingly irreconcilable polarization, and with political opponents branded as a vast international conspiracy of terrorists. Meanwhile, the military government seems to think that its problems are best met with public relations campaigns rather than genuine political engagement. Can a highly publicized visit by Kim Kardashian ogling the Pyramids be far behind?
Washington cannot do much right now to shape the deep, intense political struggles inside of Egypt, and there is no space whatsoever for it to support traditional democracy promotion programming. But the juxtaposition of the Egyptian government's intense desire for international approval of its constitutional referendum and its imprisonment of manifestly non-terrorist political activists provides an unusual opportunity to exercise a more limited kind of leverage. The United States should make clear that it considers the release of political prisoners and an end to the persecution of political opponents a necessary part of any positive view of Egypt's progress.
It was refreshing to see the Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Uzra Zeya speak out in Cairo last month at the embarrassingly convened Forum for the Future: "We are meeting today to affirm our commitment to empowering civil society, even as there are activists -- including some in Egypt -- who face criminal charges and intimidation for the peaceful exercise of their rights." That, and not Secretary of State John Kerry's baffling endorsement of Egypt's progress towards democracy, is what Cairo now needs to hear.