Leader: We must support the democratic process in Egypt, even if we dislike its outcome

The government for once should take a stand on a matter of principle.

The uprisings that have swept the Arab world since December 2010 have initiated a painful struggle for the citizens of those countries. They have also thrown received political wisdom in the UK into doubt. Liberals have been forced to choose between supporting autocrats such as the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and welcoming democracy – even if it delivers results they do not like.
 
Recent events in Cairo have shown just what is at stake. President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, elected in June 2012, was proving himself unable to govern “for all Egyptians”, as he had promised in his victory speech. Instead, he set about trying to rewrite the constitution to reflect the values of his Islamist political movement and did nothing to remove the repressive state apparatus of the Mubarak regime. Discontent grew, and in June this year millions of Egyptians once again took to the streets to demand that he give up power.
 
Yet the military’s removal of Mr Morsi on 3 July should be seen for what it was: a coup. Egyptian liberals who supported it and outside observers such as Tony Blair, who described it as a choice between “intervention or chaos”, were being either naive or disingenuous if they claimed this could be accomplished without a bloodbath. The violence of the past weeks – the massacres as state security forces attempted to clear Muslim Brotherhood supporters from sit-ins in Cairo – was inevitable. It suits the members of Egypt’s governing clique, who saw their financial and political interests threatened by the democratic uprising of the past two years, to provoke the Muslim Brotherhood into violent, sectarian reprisals. It justifies a further crackdown under the guise of fighting “terrorism”, a move to which repressive Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia have already offered their moral and financial support.
 
At the very least, Egypt risks a return to the repression of the Mubarak era, when the Muslim Brotherhood was forced underground and when its existence was used by the regime to justify its stranglehold on political life. Worse still, it raises the prospect of an all-out civil war, as we saw in Algeria during the 1990s after the military intervened to stop an Islamist party that had won the first round of the parliamentary elections from assuming power.
 
The British government argues that there is little it can do but watch. On 19 August, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said that he thought the conflict would “take years, maybe decades, to play out”. Yet through the EU – which is a major trading partner of Egypt – we could put pressure on the army to step back from the brink and restart the democratic process. Mr Hague mentioned a review of “what aid and assistance we give to Egypt in the future”; the US, too, should consider this. (President Obama will not utter the word “coup” because it would trigger the removal of the yearly $1.5bn of US aid to Egypt. He prefers to call the military’s actions an “intervention”.) Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, has gone further, questioning whether all arms export licences granted to Egypt should be revoked. Britain should not be supplying the weapons used to repress peaceful protesters.
 
Beyond that, the government for once should take a stand on a matter of principle. Either Britain supports democracy abroad or it doesn’t. For more than ten years we have been told that jihadism poses a mortal threat to our way of life and that we must fight wars against it. Yet what kind of message does it send to Islamists if we support or at least fail to condemn their exclusion from peaceful democratic politics? It would be wise to remember that an earlier wave of jihadists – including the former Muslim Brotherhood member Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is now head of al- Qaeda –were radicalised by the repression of Islamist political movements in Egypt and elsewhere.
 
Hard as it may be to accept, the only way to peace and stability in the Middle East is to respect the democratic process – even if it delivers results we may not like.
Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is seen behind bars during his retrial. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

Photo: Getty
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How the Saudis are making it almost impossible to report on their war in Yemen

The conflict is not getting anything like the media attention it deserves.

This article has been co-authored by Ahmed Baider, a fixer based in Yemen's capital Sana’a, and Lizzie Porter, a freelance journalist based in Beirut who is still waiting for a chance to report from Yemen.

Ten thousand people have died. The world’s largest cholera epidemic is raging, with more than 530,000 suspected cases and 2,000 related deaths. Millions more people are starving. Yet the lack of press attention on Yemen’s conflict has led it to be described as the “forgotten war”.

The scant media coverage is not without reason, or wholly because the general public is too cold-hearted to care. It is very hard to get into Yemen. The risks for the few foreign journalists who gain access are significant. And the Saudi-led coalition waging war in the country is doing its best to make it difficult, if not impossible, to report from the area.

Working in Sana’a as a fixer for journalists since the start of the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has sometimes felt like the most difficult job in the world. When a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen in support of its president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in March 2015, it became even harder.

With control of the airspace, last summer they closed Sana’a airport. The capital had been the main route into Yemen. Whether deliberately or coincidentally, in doing so, the coalition prevented press access.

The media blackout came to the fore last month, when the Saudi-led coalition turned away an extraordinary, non-commercial UN flight with three BBC journalists on board. The team – including experienced correspondent Orla Guerin – had all the necessary paperwork. Aviation sources told Reuters that the journalists’ presence was the reason the flight was not allowed to land.

The refusal to allow the press to enter Yemen by air forced them to find an alternative route into the country – a 13-hour sea crossing.

After the airport closure in August 2016, an immensely complex set of procedures was created for journalists travelling on the UN flights operating from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa into Sana’a. The level of paperwork required offered only a glimmer of hope that the media would be allowed to highlight the suffering in Yemen. Each journalist’s application required visas, permits, return ticket fees of $1,100 per person (later reduced to $250) and a great deal of bureaucracy.

But there were other issues, too: equipment that all journalists take with them to war zones as standard – flak jackets, helmets and satellite phones – were not allowed on the UN flights, increasing fears about operating in the country.

The new arrangement significantly increased the cost and time involved – two things that most media organisations are short of. A team of two would have to budget for several thousand dollars for a week-long reporting trip. This was limiting for even large media organisations with big budgets.

Still, the system worked. A few journalists started to come and cover the situation from the ground. Yemenis were happy to share their stories. On one assignment to villages on the west coast, people ran to talk to us and show us their malnourished children as soon as we arrived. It was obvious from the look in their eyes that they wanted to tell people what had been happening.

That changed after last October, when three or four large international media teams had reported from Yemen, broadcasting images of starving children and bombed-out homes to TVs around the world. The Saudi-led coalition began refusing to let journalists fly in with the UN. They said that the flights were for humanitarian workers only, or that the safety of journalists could not be guaranteed. Members of the press who had been preparing trips suddenly had their plans quashed. Time assigned to reporting the conflict had to be given to more accessible stories.

Over the next few months, media access was again opened up, only to be followed by U-turns and further paralysis. And when the Saudi-led coalition did grant access, it was only under certain, excruciating conditions.

As well as a press visa granted by the opposition authorities in the capital, from February this year, journalists have required a second visa granted by the Saudi-backed government in Aden.

It felt impossible. Why would they give press visas for journalists to visit opposition territory? The doubts were proved correct when trying to convince Hadi government officials to issue press access. The consular envoy in Cairo refused. A call to their team in London resulted in another “no”. 

This meant applying to the authorities in Aden for secondary visas for the tenacious journalists who hadn’t already been put off by the cost and access hurdles. One example of the petty requirements imposed was that a journalist’s visa could not be on paper: it had to be stamped into his or her passport. Of course, that added a week to the whole affair.

After months of media blockade, journalists were finally able to access Yemen again between March and May this year. At present, members of the media are officially allowed to travel on the UN flights. But how many more times journalists will be refused entry remains unknown. Not all crews will have the resources to make alternative arrangements to enter Yemen.

The New Statesman interviewed one French documentary producer who has reported from Yemen twice but who has not been able to access the country since 2015, despite multiple attempts.

Upon each refusal, the Saudi-led coalition told the journalist, “to take commercial flights – which didn’t exist…” he explained, requesting anonymity. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition are doing everything they can to discourage journalists as well as organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.”

He said that blocking media access was part of the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy to “bring [Yemen] to its knees in an atmosphere of silence and indifference.”

Access is not the only problem. Reporting in Yemen carries great risks. The British Foreign Office warns of a “very high threat of kidnap and unlawful detention from militia groups, armed tribes, criminals and terrorists”. It specifically mentions journalists as a group that could be targeted.

Editors are increasingly nervous about sending journalists into war zones where kidnap is a significant danger. The editorial green light for arranging assignments to Yemen is – understandably – ever harder to obtain.

Although they are willing to work with recognised press teams, the Houthis and Saleh loyalists have also been known to be suspicious of journalists.

“Even before the Saudis banned access to Yemen, it is important to remember that Yemen is one of the most difficult countries for journalists to access,” added the anonymous journalist.

The amount of press attention dedicated to Yemen simply does not reflect the extent of country’s suffering and political turmoil. Journalists’ rights groups, international organisations and governments need to step up pressure on Saudi Arabia to ease media access to the country.

The coalition last month proposed that the UN take control of Sana’a airport, which it refused. Whoever runs it, the hub must be opened, so that journalists can get in, and Yemenis desperately needing medical treatment abroad can get out.

Failing this, coupled with the extreme risks and costs of reporting, the world will never see the graves of 10,000 people. Yemenis will continue to die starving and invisible, in destroyed homes.