Will the US send Egypt a blank check to silence the press?
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On June 30, the fifth year anniversary of protests which were supposed to usher in an era of greater openness, improved press freedom, Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known to his friends as “Shawkan,” will find out if the Egyptian government will sentence him to death for witnessing what authorities wanted left unseen, with a camera in his hands.

And he will face this decision while U.S. lawmakers debate whether to unconditionally fund the government that threatens to kill him for doing his job.

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Shawkan was arrested Aug. 14, 2013, while covering Egyptian security forces’ killing of over 1,000 protesters supporting former President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo’s Raba'a Al-Adawiya square. Initially, Shawkan was one of the lucky ones; at least four journalists, including Ahmed Abdel Gawad, Habiba Ahmed Abd Elaziz, Mick Deane, and Mosaab al-Shami were killed that day covering the violence. But since then, Shawkan has since spent close to five years in pre-trial detention alongside at least 700 other defendants in the same case, and during that time he has wasted away in Cairo’s Tora Prison as a lack of proper medical treatment takes its toll on the 31-year-old journalist.

Even if sanity prevails and Shawkan is released, he will reemerge into a society no longer recognizable through his lens. Despite an unprecedented crackdown that has netted at least 20 journalists behind bars as of Dec. 1, 2017 — compared to 2012, when CPJ counted zero — and Sisi’s government has grown ever more thin-skinned since. Since the March presidential elections that Sisi won with 97 percent of the vote, Egyptian security forces have detained a satirical video blogger, shuttered a newspaper and detained its editor for translating an article on election irregularities that Egypt’s media regulators dubbed “fake news,” and dragged blogger Wael Abbas out of his home in his pajamas, with his last printed words taking the form of a Facebook status update saying “I’m being arrested.”

The common thread of the arrests since the elections is authorities’ accusations that all are “spreading false news” — the same accusations leveled against at least eight of the journalists who were in prison before the latest round of arrests. It turns out that “fake news” is more than the temper tantrum of fragile leaders worldwide –– it is a blunt force instrument used to control the narrative by any means necessary. The Egyptian authorities use this instrument in many different ways, ranging an anti-terror law passed in 2015 that forbids publishing anything that contradicted the government’s official version of terror attacks to simply charging journalists with spreading false news, with no evidence offered.

Even more ominously, Egyptian authorities are using the language of fake news in the context of counterterrorism and security. A couple of weeks ago, a military court sentenced Ismail Alexandrani to 10 years in prison after holding him without charge for more than two years, for “spreading fake news.” In addition to his scholarly work with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., Alexandrani had reported extensively on Egypt’s Sinai region and written critically of the government’s counterinsurgency efforts there for independent Egyptian and Lebanese newspapers. Before referring him to a military trial, state security prosecutors specifically said that Alexandrani spread false news in order to harm public security.

Sisi’s campaign against journalists is spreading with renewed vigor just as the U.S. House of Representatives is proposing $1.3 billion dollars in aid to Egypt, with the Senate set to consider appropriations as well. Counterterrorism and security continue to be paramount concerns in U.S. foreign policy, and Sisi knows this. So any move against the press will always be couched in the language of preventing terrorism. And it works ––since Sisi took power, U.S. aid has flowed to Egypt’s military and security forces with barely any interruption.

In one of Shawkan’s photos, a police officer stands guard, his helmet and visor visible but his face obscured by cigarette smoke. The photo is an effective encapsulation of the Egyptian government’s goals under Sisi: obscuring the face of power from journalists, and hiding reality. But this was a goal that no amount of state-sponsored fake news could achieve when bullets started flying in front of journalists on Aug. 14. At that moment, Egypt’s government reneged on its promise to “not replace Islamist fascism with a civil one” and threw Shawkan in jail. As more journalists are forced to follow him into the darkness, the U.S. is similarly sending its aid money into the darkness as well — without a free press, no one has any way to evaluate whether Egypt’s security approach is actually making the region any safer.

But thanks in no small part to the work of Abbas, Alexandrani, Shawkan, and so many others, Sisi’s allies and funders in the U.S. and elsewhere don’t have the excuse of a smokescreen to hide what is happening in Egypt, which is following countries such as Turkey and China down the same dark hole of media silence with little protest from the U.S. In assigning a dollar value to the U.S.-Egypt strategic relationship, U.S. policymakers now have to ask whether they will allow false news to rewrite reality — and in the process, write press freedom out of reality within one of our close allies.

Justin Shilad is CPJ Middle East and North Africa Researcher.