This outrage is entirely justified, but entirely misses the point. The arrest, trial and often torture of journalists, activists and students from across the political spectrum has nothing to do with the pursuit of justice or security. Even comedians are harassed.
These actions are best understood as a mafia-style warning, the content of which is fairly obvious: for anyone opposing the regime installed since the 2013 army coup, there is no safety in the law, nor in western governments, nor in the international media.
The use of violence to repress or stir up conflict useful to the regime is nothing new. The regime wants it to be clear that it can imprison anyone, any time, no matter how absurd the charges, how surreal the evidence or how great a travesty of justice the trial. In fact, the absurdity of the evidence and the Kafkaesque legal process are not an aberration. On the contrary, the greater their absurdity, the more effectively the new regime makes its point: Cross us at your peril; there is nowhere to hide.
Another misconception is that the Egyptian regime is spending its political capital with western governments by pursuing this so-called hard line against opposition. Even if those governments’ rhetoric in support of human rights and the rule of law were genuine and backed up by action, there are very good reasons why the Egyptian regime would benefit from antagonizing them.
First and most obviously, because it is pleasing its Gulf sponsors — especially the Saudis — who are primarily interested in marginalizing the Muslim Brothers and in putting Qatar back in its place.
These governments have not pressured their western allies to support any significant move toward democracy in Egypt since 2011, and will not do so in the future. In this they are joined by Israel, which is interested in Egypt’s continuing support for Gaza’s closure.
Second, because such high-profile behaviour helps the new regime set its red lines with its western backers. The sentencing of the “Al Jazeera Three” came the day after Kerry’s visit to Cairo, and with representatives of foreign governments and international NGOs present in court. Far from trying to avoid friction, the sentence was clearly calculated to cause the US maximum embarrassment.
Third, because any rebuttal from western governments plays to the paranoid xenophobic nationalism the regime has been stoking at home in order to isolate local opposition.
Fourth, because the “scandal” of western protest helps conveniently paper over the massive levels of aid the military and the state receive from those very same governments.
Finally, and probably most important of all, because by causing such public tensions with western governments the regime distracts public attention from the country’s deep structural problems, particularly the country’s worsening levels of inequality and the deep authoritarianism of its institutions.