CNN speaks with Fareed Zakaria about Monday's conviction in Egypt of three Al Jazeera English journalists accused of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood.
Fareed, what does this ruling in Egypt, going against these Al Jazeera journalists, say about what's going on in Egypt right now? A new president has just been elected.
It tells us the old Egypt is back. That is, the deep state – the state of Mubarak and Nasr, the state that ruled in an uninterrupted military dictatorship – is back because despite the claims they're moving toward democracy and trying to create genuine transition to pluralism, freedom of the press is entirely under siege and under attack from the state.
Look at the charges. These journalists, who are very fine professional journalists, are being essentially charged for criminal activity for aiding terrorists, which is entirely untrue. Two of them sentenced to seven years. One was sentenced to an additional 10 years. Do you know why? He was charged with possession of ammunition. Why? While covering these protests this man found a spent casing, in other words a used shell. He happened to put it in his pocket as a souvenir. For that act, he has been sentenced to an additional three years in jail. This is how absurd these charges are.
Is there a possibility this can be overturned and these three journalists can be freed?
They're all really fine professional journalists whose only sin was to commit journalism. That's all they were doing – covering the story. The phase Egypt is going through right now, judges have been doing mass sentencing where they sentence hundreds of people to death at a time, just shows how ludicrous the whole process is. Some of those sentence haves been overturned on appeal. That’s possible in this case.
It's also possible that the president, frankly, could summarily dismiss the whole thing. Egypt has turned into a dictatorship, which means if President el-Sisi decides he wants to dispense with these sentences, he will do it. So I think if there was enough international pressure brought to bear – I think Secretary Kerry has been very good, but privately should be pushing them harder. I think it wouldn't hurt if President Obama were to speak out on this.
The issue of freedom of press is at the heart of building a new democracy. If that's what Egypt wants to do and they will not allow journalists to operate freely, they will not allow the free flow of information, then the whole thing is a sham.
The White House today began with a statement saying, "The White House strongly condemns the conviction and sentencing of these Al Jazeera journalists in Cairo," adding the verdict "flouts the most basic standards of media freedom." Here's the sensitive issue. We know Egypt is an important strategic partner in that part of the world. The United States provides Egypt with a lot of military and economic foreign aid. If Egypt continues to arrest journalists for simply doing journalism, sentencing them to seven or 10 years in prison, there will be outrage in the United States, and a lot of that pressure for foreign aid for Egypt will go away.
That's true. It's a very complicated subject. Egypt gets a lot of that foreign aid because it signed the Camp David Accords, returning land to Israel. It's tied in with a broader strategic puzzle. It will be difficult to withhold the aid without unraveling that, including the peace treaty with Israel.
However, I think it's very important for the United States to send a signal that the United States does not believe Egypt is on the right track, that these are terrible, terrible mistakes. As Secretary Kerry said, they're losing faith with the people of Egypt. I think it would be perfectly reasonable to suspend a variety of programs – the U.S. has some military aid, non-military aid, other kinds of contact. Because it's not just bad for journalists. It's terrible for Egypt. When you think about it, in terms of attracting tourists, part of the lifeblood of Egypt's economy – all this is sending exactly the wrong signals.