Egypt’s Gulag

On Saturday June 21, an Egyptian judge confirmed 183 death sentences for what are called, in the BBC story, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of them are, no doubt, Brotherhood supporters – until last year’s military coup, the Brotherhood was a legal political party and, indeed, the governing party. Since the coup, the Brotherhood has become illegal, its leaders imprisoned. In April, when the initial death sentence was passed on 683 defendants, the brotherhood became the subject of one of the largest mass death sentences in Egypt’s recent history. If these death sentences are carried out, they will constitute a major massacre – the largest, perhaps, since the government’s massacre of protesters in August 2013, which, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Health, had a death toll of over 600 people.

The Brotherhood is not the government’s only target, of course. Civil society activists, the force that started the Arab Spring at Tahrir Square years ago, have been persecuted continuously by governments. One such activist, Alaa Abd El Fattah, was sentenced in absentia to a 15 year sentence.

And then, there is the crime of journalism. Al Jazeera journalists, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste, and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, were sentenced to 7 years in jail today. What did they do? They “provided a platform” for the Brotherhood. A journalist who did not quote Brotherhood people in a story about Egyptian politics would be irresponsible. But being a responsible journalist in Egypt apparently is punishable with 7 years in prison.

Another Canadian, Khaled al-Qazzaz, was a member of the ousted Brotherhood-led government before the coup last year. In jail since last year, al-Qazzaz’s court date has been moved to tomorrow (June 24).

The Western response has been ambivalent. US Secretary of State John Kerry called the sentences of the Al-Jazeera journalists “chilling and draconian”. The UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay called them “obscene and a travesty of justice.” Canada’s Minister, Lynne Yelich, called on Egypt to protect the rights of all individuals, including journalists.

Mixing signals, Kerry also praised Egypt’s military government and its recent electoral exercise this past weekend, traveling to the country to talk about Iraq’s civil war and to release hundreds of millions in military aid that had been frozen after the coup. “There are issues of concern,” he said, “but we know how to work with those.” Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird visited Egypt in April, expressing Canada’s “willingness to support Egypt during this important transition.”

Despite the recent electoral exercise, Egypt is currently ruled by the same military establishment that ruled it for decades. Since the 1970s that establishment has depended on Western support. Kerry, and months before, Baird, have renewed their support at a time of kangaroo courts, persecution of journalists, and mass death sentences.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. Blog: Twitter: @justinpodur

Egypt’s dictatorship for the digital age

Egypt was ruled by the Mubarak dictatorship for 30 years before the people managed to overthrow him in 2011.

Mubarak was not overthrown by the internet. Some business and technological literature claimed that, because the internet made it more difficult to keep secrets (a valid claim), the “dictator business” was obsolete. An NBC news story from February 2011, hardly unique, described the Egyptian government’s attempt to shut down the internet to slow the spread of public outrage at government atrocities, but did not really offer an argument to substantiate its title: “How the internet brought down a dictator” (Wilson Rothman, NBC News, Feb 14, 2011.)

The business professor Henry Lucas reasoned as follows: “The governments of two dictators in Tunisia and Egypt did not survive citizen uprisings that were non-ideological in nature. The people were tired of the results of the dictatorships, and they found that technology helped them organize for change.” (Lucas, The Search for Survival, Praeger, 2012, pg. 151). If ideology is a set of beliefs that govern political behaviour, then there are no citizen uprisings that are “non-ideological in nature”, and Egypt’s 2011 was as ideological as any other. Both Lucas and NBC were writing before 2013, when Edward Snowden revealed the universality of internet surveillance by the US National Security Agency, revelations that also put a damper on hopes for emancipation through technology.

But let us allow for a minute the two claims, that 1) those who mobilized to overthrow Mubarak in 2011 used twitter, facebook, and youtube over the course of their mobilization and 2) these technologies made it more difficult for the Egyptian regime to keep their human rights violations secret. Does it follow that dictatorships are doomed?

It does not. The dictatorship of Egypt’s military was restored in a coup in July 2013. So, rather than asking if dictatorships are doomed, since they evidently are not, perhaps a better question might be, how do dictatorships adapt to a situation where their citizens have platforms to communicate more freely than they did before? Mubarak ruled through the standard dictatorial methods: terror, propaganda, and selective support (especially from elites and from foreign powers). Egypt’s post-2013 dictators use the same methods, though they have adapted the balance somewhat, having learned some important lessons in propaganda, and in information-management-through-terror, from 2011.

After the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011, politics in the country split into three tendencies. The army, with business interests, elite and international connections, and tremendous resources, retained much of its power. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had maintained an organization throughout the decades of dictatorship, was a significant force. The newest grouping, and also the least-organized, was inspired by the Arab Spring to oppose the dictatorship and struggle for political freedom and economic reform.

Mubarak was ousted, but the army’s power was preserved. It began taking steps to return to power immediately. The army was able to manipulate the legal process, to rush through a constitutional process, and to rush to an election that denied the ‘civil society’ group the chance to build an organization that could compete electorally with the establishment’s party or the Brotherhood. In the May-June 2012 elections, the relatively unorganized ‘civil society’ split the vote, and the Brotherhood defeated the establishment candidate.

In the months that followed, the army retained not only control of key aspects of the economy, but also many key government portfolios and executive functions. The army was able to manipulate the rationing system to exacerbate economic problems while the Brotherhood government took the blame. The Brotherhood alienated the majority secular vote with its policies of social control and its alliance with the army against secular political protests. The Brotherhood eventually generated massive resistance against it, which the army took advantage of to re-take control in the July 2013 coup.

The internet may not have made dictatorships obsolete, but Egypt’s rulers are working on developing a model of dictatorship for the internet age. In the seven months since the July coup, Egypt’s new dictatorship, which is made up of the same establishment as Mubarak’s dictatorship, has used extraordinary violence to try to thoroughly crush those forces that overthrew Mubarak in 2011.

The first order of business was to keep people off of the streets. When those who opposed the July coup used some of the same methods that had overthrown Mubarak, namely street demonstrations and sit-ins in public squares, they were surrounded and massacred, with huge massacres taking place in August.

Supplementing the massacres on the streets were mass, as well as targeted, arrests, and the return of long-term administrative detention. Legal processes, always under the oversight of the army, are a very important part of Egypt’s dictatorship. A constitutional referendum was held on January 14-15. Those who campaigned for a “No” vote were arrested. The referendum passed with the kind of massive majority that marked Mubarak’s electoral exercises.

The government is in the middle of a counterinsurgency war in the Sinai, on Egypt’s border with Gaza and Israel. The government’s opponents, the Bedouin in the Sinai, are labeled terrorists, and anyone questioning the government’s counterinsurgency policy is similarly labeled.

Information management has been key. Journalists were arrested in advance of the constitutional referendum and are still being held. The dictators treat internationals – journalists or other members of civil society – to the same arbitrary legal processes as locals: long detentions, administrative renewals, frivolous charges. Meanwhile, local media, especially television, under concentrated establishment control, engage in virulent propaganda. The main theme in the media is that everyone who opposes Egypt’s dictators are terrorists, starting with the Brotherhood and going from there to everyone – including secular civil society – who opposed the coup. Or, indeed, who writes or says anything about the coup.

Sharif Abdel Kuddous writes of the Al Jazeera staff currently detained on terrorism charges ( that ‘prosecutors assigned a team of “media experts” from the Egyptian Union for Television and Radio to inspect equipment seized from the hotel where Al Jazeera English was operating. The technical reports show that “the footage was altered and video scenes were modified using software and high-caliber editing equipment.” So they used Final Cut Pro. They edited. They probably even selected the fiercest footage of clashes for their reports.’

Sharif also quotes from the new anti-terrorism bill: ‘Article 21 of the bill is astonishing in its vagueness and scope: “Anyone who directly or indirectly promotes acts of terror, either verbally or in writing, or through any other means of broadcasting or publishing, or through letters or online websites that others can access, shall be punished by imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.”’

So, seven months later, we have the new Egyptian dictatorship’s answer to the internet: monitor its users, jail its journalists in Egypt, and use it to broadcast messages of hate and misinformation about political opponents. So far, it is working, but it won’t work forever. Not because of the internet, but because of the people. Dictatorships are overthrown when people lose their fear, and the Egyptians have lost their fear more than a few times in recent years.


Justin Podur blogs at

Update: Day 11 consular meeting

Aug 27, 5:20pm


It’s Day 11, and today Tarek and John were able to meet with consular officials for a meeting. Their morale and health continues to be good, which is encouraging.

John & Tarek were also given updates about the international attention their case has received. They were very surprised and moved by all the incredible support that has poured in for them.

NYT on Tarek and John

Aug 25, 8:50am

The NYT mentioned Tarek and John’s case in an article about the widening crackdown in Egypt

In general, for coverage about Tarek and John, support statements, and updates, please follow Here at, we will only be posting updates and statements from the point of view of the families. These will also be on, but usually they will first be posted here.

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Update: CBC interview with our lawyer

Aug 23, 8:15am

A representative from our law firm, Khaled El Shalakany, spoke with the CBC yesterday, summarizing Tarek and John’s legal situation and the visit made to them yesterday at Tora prison.

We continue to press for their immediate release, and ask supporters and friends to continue to contact Canadian officials and Egyptian consulates and embassies.

Update: We have retained Egyptian counsel, and have some legal clarifications

12:30pm, August 21/13

We have hired Shalakany Law Office ( to represent Tarek and John. One of our lawyers, Adam Khaled El Shalakany, has agreed to speak to media on legal aspects of the case.

Our lawyers have confirmed for us that the Film Makers Syndicate has filed a complaint to the Public Prosecutor about the case of John and Tarek and are awaiting a reply.

Continue reading “Update: We have retained Egyptian counsel, and have some legal clarifications”

Update: Replying to far-fetched allegations, calling for immediate release

1:30pm, Aug 20/13

Today a district prosecutor in Cairo sent a press release to domestic Egyptian media outlets referring to the detention for 15 days of nine foreigners — 4 Irish, 2 Syrian, 1 Turkish, and 2 Canadian — pending investigation into a wide-ranging list of allegations concerning events that took place at the al-Fateh mosque and the Azbakiya police station.

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Detained Canadians’ Families Request Pressure Be Applied on Egyptian Government to Secure Their Immediate Release

August 19th, 2013
16:30am EST

For Immediate Release –

Egyptian authorities continue to detain two Canadians, Professor and Filmmaker, John Greyson, and Emergency Physician, Tarek Loubani, 4 days after their initial arrest.

The families of the two detained Canadians are calling on the Canadian Government to work towards their immediate release.

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Egyptian Authorities Continue to Detain Canadian Filmmaker and Emergency Physician

August 18th, 2013
15:30pm EST

For Immediate Release –

Egyptian authorities are currently detaining two Canadians, Professor and Filmmaker, John Greyson, and Emergency Physician, Tarek Loubani, 48 hours after their initial arrest.

Egyptian authorities have yet to provide a reason for the ongoing detention of the two Canadians.

Continue reading “Egyptian Authorities Continue to Detain Canadian Filmmaker and Emergency Physician”