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Autocrats, beware: The whole world is watching

| Saturday, March 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
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As a wave of protests against government corruption and misrule rolls from country to country, nervous autocrats are using the same formula to crush dissent.

From Russia, to Ukraine, to Venezuela, to Egypt and beyond, there are copycat crackdowns: Arrest opposition leaders on absurd charges, hold show trials, beat — or sometimes shoot — protesters and silence media that challenge the government's message. Then blame a foreign conspiracy for all that has gone wrong.

This formula kept many dictators in power in the 20th century. It is outdated in this one.

To understand why, let's look at the shameful trial last month of three respected journalists in Cairo.

Australian Peter Greste and two colleagues who work for the al-Jazeera English TV channel were charged with undermining Egypt's national security as they stood inside metal cages in a Cairo courtroom. The three were hauled out of their studio in Cairo's upscale Marriott Hotel in December and have been held since, two of them in cold, insect-infested cells without access to needed medical treatment.

All three, including Egyptian Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, are highly respected journalists. Their real “crime” appears to have been that they worked for al-Jazeera, a broadcast network owned by Qatar. That Gulf emirate backs the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that dominated Egypt's electoral politics until the army ousted the president last summer.

However, al-Jazeera's English-language service — unlike the Arabic service — is widely considered to be a credible, independent broadcast network. “We had been doing exactly as any responsible, professional journalist would,” wrote Greste in a letter smuggled from prison, “recording and trying to make sense of the unfolding events with all the accuracy, fairness and balance that our imperfect trade demands.”

Egyptian officials seem intent on squelching any public discussion of how to heal a deeply divided society. In the Egyptian version of “you are either with us or against us,” even raising taboo subjects can mean arrest for treason. State-controlled television vilifies any government critics as traitors and has branded the three arrested men “the Marriott cell” and run leaked footage of their arrest, accompanied by heavy music befitting a spy thriller.

The hate speech pouring out of official media has further polarized the country and increased instability, without curbing terrorism. That, in turn, will make it harder for the president-in-waiting, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to restart Egypt's moribund economy and provide jobs for its youth.

Officials who are frantic to control all information can lose touch with reality. This, even as the younger Internet generation manages to access information that the regime seeks to repress.

Last month, prosecutors investigated an allegation that a babbling hand puppet in a TV ad for Vodafone was sending coded instructions to Islamist terrorists. Officials from Vodafone Egypt were actually summoned to respond.

Tweeters and bloggers went wild with film clips of the chattering puppet. One English-language tweet by a Mohamed Abdul Fattah: “The Onion is shutting down their website citing unbeatable competition from the Egyptian government.”

What's happening in Cairo should serve as a warning to other autocrats who use a similar formula for repression: A government that muzzles the media and shuts down dissent is setting itself up for future failure — or even farce — as the world and its young people look on.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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