A “man-made miracle” is how Lina Attalah, editor-in-chief of one of Egypt’s last remaining independent press outlets, Mada Masr, described her release to me shortly after her brief detention at the hands of Egyptian authorities. Indeed, the outcome was a happy surprise in a country that is consistently ranked a top jailer of journalists worldwide, a miracle that came as the product of public pressure. The outlet’s investigative reports, like one about the removal of the president’s son from his intelligence post, appears to have sparked the raid on their office and have been crucial in enhancing understanding of developments in the country, both inside the country and abroad. Over the past several years we have witnessed the arrest of dozens of journalists and human rights defenders in Egypt. Usually, their imprisonments are extended with a series of regular pre-trial detention renewals in a Kafkaesque legal system that often appears more effective at holding suspects indefinitely than it is at ever bringing compelling evidence against them in trial. On November 24, when news of the raid first broke, it seemed likely that Mada’s leadership would join the many others that they had reported on in this seemingly endless legal cycle. A “man-made miracle” prevented them from succumbing to that fate—at least for now.
Over the past several years, there has been a growing sense amongst many foreign missions in Egypt, as well as in the capitals they represent, that international pressure is no longer effective with the Egyptian government. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and his coterie seem increasingly unconcerned with how damaging their repressive practices are for Egypt’s international reputation, as the security apparatus continues to arrest, torture, and exile regime critics, independent journalists, and opposition figures. Despite the pernicious escalation, the international community’s criticisms have become quieter over the years. The latest referendum amending the constitution to expand Sisi’s powers and extend his rule received almost no international response at all, despite the fact that the amendments called for an egregious extension of power, and the few who sought to campaign for a no vote on the proposed amendments were arrested.
The raid on Mada was different: It highlighted how a more assertive approach can yield better results. Several strong statements, some from unusual corners, were made in response to the raid on Egypt’s last remaining independent news outlet. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo personally raised the issue in a press conference. The EU quickly released a statement as did the governments of Germany, the UK, and Canada. Aside from these public statements, even more crucial calls were made privately and immediately when news of the raid broke. This swift response was almost certainly central to the release of Attalah and her three colleagues Mohamed Hamama, Rana Mamdouh, and Shady Zalat that same evening. Indeed, Attalah along with two other editors, were being driven to the state security prosecutor when the officers escorting them got a call telling them to turn around and release them. Pressure worked.
This isn’t the first time international pressure has been proven to be effective. After the draconian NGO law was passed by parliament, there was a unified campaign by democratic governments to oppose it. Their diplomats and ministers consistently raised the law in their meetings with Egyptian officials. Congressional leaders also spoke out against the law in their own statements as well as in hearings held on aid to Egypt. The message was clear: this law’s revision is a priority among an important coalition of Egypt’s partners and it will continue to color their relationship with Egypt until it is reformed. It worked. The current NGO law isn’t a good law, but it no longer carries prison terms for violating it which is a substantial improvement over its previous form and helps protect Egyptian NGO workers. It is widely understood that international pressure was crucial to securing that change.
These examples indicate clearly that international pressure can be effective, however it must be focused on specific practical measures that help protect and expand space for Egyptian civil society without being seen as an existential threat to the regime. The threat to Mada isn’t over. Following the raid, State Security Prosecution absurdly claimed that Mada was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that has been repeatedly criticized on the platform. This is part of a troubling trend in which Egyptian officials label peaceful government critics as Brotherhood affiliates so as to charge them with being members of a “terrorist organization.” These untenable claims demonstrate how the regime uses allegations of terrorism to silence and repress legitimate criticism that poses no threat to public safety. The international community must continue to communicate their concern over the threats to Mada and their insistence that journalists be safe to do their work without physical or legal threats. Failing to do so increases the odds that the release of Mada’s journalists will be a short-lived victory. Indeed, days after the Mada raids, four additional journalists were arrested in the country, with little international outcry; all four face accusations of belonging to a terrorist organization and remain in pretrial detention.
These past instances of successful pressure demonstrate that a firm, unified front focused on practical demands can deliver results—especially where these demands can be shown to be in the interest of state stability, rather than a threat to it. Going forward it’s important to identify and prioritize realistic demands that protect or expand valuable space for Egyptians to build civil society and protect essential rights that governments can unify their pressure around. By chipping away at the regime’s authoritarian excesses the international community, alongside Egyptian civil society, can help make incremental progress that benefit all Egyptians. Together, it’s possible to make some more miracles and protect this one.