When Hosni Mubarak was in power, a foreign journalist could spend unlimited time with members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, who roundly condemned the autocratic leader.
These days the same conversation can land reporters in court on charges of aiding a terrorist group, a sign of where the country is headed three years after a popular uprising raised hopes of greater freedom.
The public prosecutor said on Wednesday that Egypt would put an Australian, two Britons and a Dutchwoman working for Al Jazeera on trial for aiding 16 Egyptians belonging to a “terrorist organisation”, a reference to the Brotherhood.
Simply interacting with the Brotherhood may earn them prison sentences in Egypt, a major recipient of U.S. aid.
Egypt has cracked down on dissent since the army toppled the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president, in July after mass protests against him.
Security forces subsequently killed nearly 1,000 Islamists in the streets, arrested thousands of others, put Brotherhood leaders on trial and declared them terrorists.
The Brotherhood says it is a peaceful movement.
The measures against the al Jazeera reporters alarmed Western diplomats and human rights groups, who say the army-backed government wants to crush what little freedoms are left.
Al Jazeera is one of the only Arab news organisations operating here that is critical of the Egyptian government.
An Al Jazeera spokesman said the allegations against its journalists were “absurd, baseless and false” and a challenge to free speech.
Asked to comment on the plight of foreign journalists in light of the Al Jazeera case, army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali said: “This is a case related to a channel that has breached the law and this is in the realm of the Egyptian judiciary not the armed forces.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States was “deeply concerned about the ongoing lack of freedom of expression and press freedom in Egypt” and urged the government to reconsider trying the journalists.
“Any journalist, regardless of affiliation, must not be targets of violence, intimidation or politicized legal action. They must be protected and permitted to freely do their jobs in Egypt.”
What is worrying, some Western diplomats say, is that powerful hawks in the Interior Ministry and even the judiciary believe their own “you are either with us or against us” narrative, and so do many Egyptians.
That is making conditions tougher for foreign journalists, portrayed as part of a plot designed to ruin Egypt’s image.
Following the move against al Jazeera, foreign reporters asked whether interviewing Brotherhood members was now a crime.
The State Information Service said it would protect press freedoms and it was not illegal to interview any group as long as this did not involve incitement.
One Western reporter — who was followed and received telephoned death threats from people who said “you sided with the Muslim Brotherhood against the people” — says caution levels will go up after the Al Jazeera court case.
For their part, the Al Jazeera journalists were working for a channel owned by Qatar, a Gulf Arab state which supported the Brotherhood and which has difficult relations with the present Egyptian government.
In a statement, the prosecutor said the four had published “lies” that harmed the national interest and had supplied money, equipment and information to the 16 Egyptians. The foreigners were also accused of using unlicensed broadcasting equipment.
Al Jazeera’s Cairo offices have been closed since July 3 when security forces raided them after the army ousted Morsi.
Some Egyptian media have referred to the Al Jazeera journalists in a term with sinister overtones — “The Marriott Cell” — because they worked from that Cairo hotel.
The charges against them are also symptomatic of what critics say is political malaise that has been spreading since army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi unveiled a political road map after the takeover.
Sisi, who is expected to announce his candidacy for the presidency soon, promised Egyptians free and fair elections on the path to democracy.
“The writing on the wall is clear. The Egyptian government has decided that it will no longer tolerate any independent journalism that they deem is not the spin they want to see,” said Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch.
Al Qaeda-inspired Islamist militant groups based in the Sinai Peninsula have stepped up attacks on security forces since Morsi’s overthrow. An Islamist insurgency has spread to mainland areas, with more and more high-profile targets under attack.
At one of Morsi’s trials this week, jingoistic sentiment was palpable. Two young girls walked outside the court holding army boots on their heads in a gesture of support for the military.
In the 1990s, a more destructive Islamist insurgency raged in Egypt, but a foreign journalist who worked in the country at the time said he never thought he could face trial for interviewing the Brotherhood or other Islamist militants.
“Freelance journalists could wander around even without official permission. The most they would get is ‘naughty, naughty’ from the police who would tell them to get accreditation,” said H.A. Hellyer, an Egypt expert and fellow at the American think-tank the Brookings Institution.
“Not now. I would not recommend interviewing someone from the Brotherhood. Foreign journalists are suspects until proven otherwise.”