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Al Jazeera's reporters may go free, but a muzzled press in Egypt is here to stay

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Hassan Ammar/AP

(Read caption) Canadian Al Jazeera English journalist Mohamed Fahmy holds up an Egyptian flag after a retrial a courthouse near Tora prison in Cairo today. An Egyptian judge ordered Mr. Fahmy and another Al Jazeera English journalist, Baher Mohammed, released on bail as their retrial on terror-related charges continues.

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After more than a year in prison, Egypt is to release on bail two Al Jazeera journalists pending a retrial on claims that the men were involved in terrorism and supporting Egypt's now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The conviction of Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed, and Peter Greste – who was released last week – followed a farcical trial in which prosecutors asserted the reporters were running a clandestine operation out of the Marriott Hotel in Cairo. Their conviction was an international symbol of the repression of free speech in Egypt under Gen. (Ret.) Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who came to power in the wake of a July 2013 coup.

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Today the work of muzzling, or re-muzzling, Egypt's press has largely been done. Self-censorship is rampant, TV stations have been closed, and calls from the Interior Ministry warning producers and editors about their coverage are once more commonplace. Reporters Without Borders ranked Egypt at 158th out of 180 countries in its 2015 Press Freedom Index. In 2010, former President Hosni Mubarak's final full year in office, the group rated Egypt 127th.

Mr. Fahmy is an Egyptian-Canadian who renounced his Egyptian citizenship last week in the hope that would lead to his deportation, as happened with Mr. Greste, an Australian. Mr. Mohamed is an Egyptian.

While freeing these journalists would make the continued flow of economic and military aid to Egypt from the US a little more palatable, neither President Sisi nor the institutions of the state that he inherited from Mubarak seem interested in opening the door to free and open debate in the country again.

In a rare interview last week, conducted by Der Spiegel's Dieter Bednarz and Klaus Brinkbaumer, Sisi hinted at a possible presidential amnesty for the two Al Jazeera journalists. He defended his brand of authoritarianism, saying that Egypt is threatened by religious extremists and that there's little distance between the Muslim Brotherhood, which was outlawed after he came to power, and the Islamic State fighting in Iraq and  Syria. 

"If we fail in this fight against terrorism, the entire region will be embroiled in turmoil for the next 50 years. Europe will also be threatened with attacks by the extremists. I already told my European friends this," he said.

As for freedom of association and the right to demonstrate, he argued that a heavy hand is essential for economic development and that protests and turmoil drive foreign investment away:

Sisi: One cannot define human rights as narrowly as you do. If the Muslim Brothers manipulate people's awareness or distort their beliefs, then that is also a violation of human rights. If you are unable to receive good or even adequate education and shelter and cannot find a job and have no hope for the future, that is also a violation of your human rights. Human rights should not be reduced to freedom of expression. Even if this were the case, though, people in our country are free to say whatever they like.

... Spiegel: Without activists like Ahmed Maher, Mohammed Adel and Ahmed Duma, you would not be president today. Those three revolutionaries are now in jail because they violated the increased restrictions that had been imposed on Egyptians' right to demonstrate.

Sisi: Our protest law is derived from the French, German and Swiss laws that organize protests. Everyone has a right to protest through notifying the authorities to obtain permission. For the activists, this was about demonstratively violating this law. Ninety-million Egyptians want food and water. Would your country invest in us if the protests continued day and night?

Sisi knows that the forces that brought him to the pinnacle in Egypt can turn on him, and he's going to do everything he can to prevent that. With the US and regional friends like Saudi Arabia terrified of Islamist political movements, he's likely to be given a lot of latitude and cash as he pursues stability above all. The so-called "freedom agenda" of President George W. Bush's first term in office, in which he pressed leaders like Mubarak to allow a political opening, is now a distant memory.

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Writing in the London Review of Books, Tom Stevenson argues that Sisi's Egypt is far more repressive than it was under Hosni Mubarak, and that dissenters are being chased out of the country, or shackled.

The Interior Ministry operates 42 official prisons authorised to house civilian detainees. Information about them is relatively easy to come by and they are sometimes even inspected. Yet abuse and torture are rife, encouraged by a legal system which in many cases relies on confessions. Some of the worst prisons are well known: Wadi Natrun, Abu Zaabal and Tora Liman, believed to have been one of the earliest CIA black sites under Mubarak. There is also the Borg al-Arab, where Mohamed Morsi is still being held, and the Sign al-Aqrab, or ‘Scorpion Prison’, the most famous maximum security prison in Egypt.

... At the beginning of 2013 Egypt’s official prison population stood at somewhere between 60,000 and 66,000. According to the Interior Ministry’s own figures 16,000 Egyptians were arrested in the nine months following Morsi’s removal in July 2013. A more plausible independent estimate by the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights put the number for the same period at more than 41,000. Sisi has waved away such figures: the official prisons do not, he claims, have the space to accommodate tens of thousands of people. He may be right. Yet imprisoned they have been. So where are they? Having interviewed lawyers, psychologists and former detainees, I have learned the names of sites where torture and ill-treatment are far worse than anything in the official prisons.

Many of the voices that flowered after the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak are now overseas. Bassam Youssef, who patterned his wildly popular satirical news show "The Program" after Jon Stewart's Daily Show, saw his dream pulled off the air in 2014. "The Program doesn’t have a space,” he told journalists then. “It’s not allowed.” He's now at Harvard on a fellowship. 

Ganzeer, the street artist whose graffiti provided some of the defining images of the Egyptian uprising, is now living in Brooklyn, New York.

They are of course the lucky ones, as hopefully Mr. Fahmy and Mohamed will be. But Egypt's jails still groan with political prisoners

On Monday, Egypt sentenced nine political activists to prison, adding to the toll. Among them was Alexandria lawyer Mahienour el-Masry, who I got to know in 2011. Passionate, and inflamed by the possibility of political change then, she remained undaunted by the change in climate that led her to the jail cell she's now living in. 

Far more are simply giving up.