Egypt's announcement that it will try 20 Al Jazeera journalists - five of them foreign nationals - on charges of aiding a "terrorist organization" today shines a light on how much cruder the mechanisms for controlling dissent and free expression are in the emerging new Egypt than in the Mubarak era.
The country has been whipping itself into a hyper-nationalist and xenophobic frenzy for months, with popular television talk shows going on at length about the Zionist-American-Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to destroy Egypt and frequently baying for the blood of both locals and foreigners. Meanwhile, the military government has been filling the jails with Muslim Brotherhood activists, liberal activists, socialist activists - pretty much any type of activist it can get its hands on. Academics have not been spared either.
The press, especially domestic outlets, has been no exception. But the manner in which foreign news outlets are being targeted and their employees threatened with long jail terms is something new in the storied annals of state repression in Egypt. Under Mubarak the domestic press was tightly muzzled - with editors and journalists who challenged the censorship regime often ending up in court.
But the foreign press was given a freer hand, as the government rightly understood that it was largely irrelevant to controlling the Egyptian people. A foreign reporter might be expelled or fail to have a visa renewed, but the idea of hauling an Australian or a Canadian reporter to the cold cells of Tora prison, where generations of Egyptian political dissidents have served their time, would have been unthinkable: Why stir up international opprobrium for nothing? Foreign academics could also freely conduct interviews and research. While there were some restrictions and inconveniences - many local people were rightly afraid to talk on the record - it was nothing like Tunisia or Syria.
Yet Al Jazeera English's Australian reporter Peter Greste and Canadian-Egyptian producer Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian colleague Baher Mohamed have spent the past 30 days in Tora. The Egyptian government said today it would also try two Britons and Dutchwoman who work for Al Jazeera for aiding terrorists, as well as 14 other Egyptians. The public prosecutor didn't name the additional defendants and it appears that many of these people are not in custody.
Last week Greste - who has spent only limited time in Egypt - explained the conditions of his detention in a letter smuggled out of Tora:
I am nervous as I write this. I am in my cold prison cell after my first official exercise session – four glorious hours in the grass yard behind our block and I don’t want that right to be snatched away. I’ve been locked in my cell 24 hours a day for the past 10 days, allowed out only for visits to the prosecutor for questioning, so the chance for a walk in the weak winter sunshine is precious.
And his treatment has been much better than that of his two colleagues.
Fahmy and Baher have been accused of being MB members, So they are being held in the far more draconian “Scorpion prison” built for convicted terrorists. Fahmy has been denied the hospital treatment he badly needs for a shoulder injury he sustained shortly before our arrest. Both men spend 24 hours a day in their mosquito-infested cells, sleeping on the floor with no books or writing materials to break the soul- destroying tedium. Remember we have not been formally charged, much less convicted of any crime
One can only imagine the treatment of the thousands of lower-profile political prisoners across the country who don't have strong media and international ties (consider this letter from an Egyptian-American Muslim Brotherhood member in prison and its description of a fellow inmate being forced to conduct surgery on him with a straight razor because he was denied formal medical care.)
That Al Jazeera is a particular target is no surprise. Jazeera's Arabic channel was a major backer of the uprising that toppled Mubarak and heavily supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first elected president whose tenure was cut short by popular protests followed by a coup last July.
Al Jazeera English has stuck to a much more neutral line, and the method that is being used to target its reporters sends a powerful signal to everyone about the new rules of the game. The military had the Muslim Brotherhood outlawed as a terrorist organization last year. Now it is saying that reporters who interview Muslim Brotherhood members and broadcast their views are terrorists. It is impossible to due a responsible job of explaining Egypt to the world without talking to Muslim Brothers. The government seems well aware of that.
Is this a temporary state of affairs? There's no reason to think so. Field Marshall Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who's led Egypt in practice if not in name for the past 7 months, is the odds-on favorite to be Egypt's next president and he appears to determined to crush the Brotherhood, the country's largest and best organized political movement.
Heeling the foreign press and turning the domestic press into a propaganda machine appears part of the plan. The Brothers are not to be allowed any voice but the caricatured evil cackle the government has given them.
And it hasn't stopped at the Brothers. The government has targeted liberal Egyptian reformers and democracy activists like Alaa Abd El-Fattah - anyone who might possibly be interested in protesting in the unfolding, military-led politics of the country.
What's going on now is about far more than the individual activists and journalists in the government's sights. What we're seeing is an attempt to reset the conditions that allowed the central government so much social control during three decades of Mubarak's rule. With the media in hand, opponents jailed, and citizens frightened, elections are far more likely to be the stage-managed affairs of old than anything meaningful - just consider the 98 percent "yes" vote for the new Egyptian Constitution favored by the military earlier this month.