A poignant day for press freedoms in Egypt

It’s the 23rd of June 2014. I’m in Sydney, Australia – the hometown of a rather distinguished journalist, Peter Greste. He’s a household name now in many parts of the world – less because of his sterling accomplishments, and more because of something he never did. He was never a terrorist, nor did he ever aid them or their nefarious agendas – but that’s what he is currently on trial for in Egypt.

Mohammed Fadel Fahmy is with him in that dock, as is Baher Mohammed, and, for inexplicable reasons, five students who have no observable link to the Fahmy, Mohammed or Greste. Today is a poignant day – because today, the judge in this case will issue his verdict. By the time you read this piece, these eight individuals will be deemed by the Egyptian legal system as guilty – or not.

Inside Egypt, the case has raised little controversy, due to the association of Greste, Fahmy and Mohammed with the infamous Qatari-based channel, Al-Jazeera English. The Arabic versions of the channel have been frequently pilloried for bias, and accused of providing space and airtime to sectarianism. Accusations of the English-language channel have been far less intense – but that does not matter. The three journalists stand accused – and today, they’ll be judged, even if the evidence that has been shown to the court seems only convict them of being journalists.

The Egyptian prison system is already at bursting point – by some estimates, 40,000 people have been detained since last year for various reasons

H.A. Hellyer

Outside of Egypt, the controversy is more than evident. Rival channels to Al-Jazeera, journalists that privately hold Al-Jazeera’s management partially responsible for the mess that Greste and his colleagues find themselves in – they’ve all put their differences to one side, and have been campaigning, rightly so, for their professional colleagues’ release. International organizations and various governments, including most recently the US government, have called upon Egypt to release these journalists.

Sitting in Sydney, glancing over the city that Greste was born in, I wonder how today is going to actually play out. The judge has many options besides sentencing the defendants to various jail terms (Greste is looking at, for example, 7 years, if the judge applies the maximum penalty, and Fahmy faces 15), if they’re found guilty. Suspended sentences, for example, would allow for a guilty verdict – which would please at least certain sections of society – but it would also mean no jail time, which would take the wind out of the sails of any international campaign.

Alternative scenarios

There are other alternative scenarios, though. If, for example, the Australian Greste were to be found innocent, while the Egyptians on trial (including the Canadian-Egyptian Fahmy) are found guilty, that would almost definitely result in the weakening of the international campaign for their release. No-one really wants to admit this – but Greste has been the face of this campaign, far more than anyone else. There have been many other Egyptian journalists detained or placed on trial – but it is, like it or not, the imprisonment of the Australian Caucasian that has managed to inspire this campaign more than anything else. Fahmy’s former CNN connection, and his Canadian citizenship, has certainly helped – but privately, many worry that if Greste were to be found innocent, his colleagues might be almost forgotten.

After all – it is not as though there are not many others who have been detained. Just a few days ago, during a protest against the widely criticized protest law, unarmed & non-violent protesters were arrested. It seems like a vicious cycle – protesters protest the imprisonment of their comrades under this protest law, only to be added to their ranks. One of them was an editor called Sanaa, who previously worked on the Oscar-nominated film, ‘The Square’. She is 20 years old.

The Egyptian prison system is already at bursting point – by some estimates, 40,000 people have been detained since last year for various reasons. Some were detained for simply breaking the protest law, non-violently – others, in the midst of the various upheavals that took place last summer, after the military-led removal of the Morsi government from office after widespread protests. The renowned Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) recently published a detailed report on those events, which they called ‘Weeks of Killing’, which called to account various state and non-state forces for the deaths of hundreds of Egyptian civilians last summer. The most complete account issued thus far of those incidents, neither the Egyptian state, nor the Muslim Brotherhood, have chosen to comment or otherwise engage with the report – although, clearly, they know of its contents. Perhaps because the report fails to uphold either of their narratives – but who knows.

In a few days, a significant proportion of the Egyptian society will celebrate the first anniversary of the 30th of June protests that preceded the removal of the Islamist president, Mohammad Mursi. Many of those who supported those very same protests are now in jail, or on trial – not because they supported that ousted president, but because they didn’t support the new arrangements that followed his removal. Peter Greste wasn’t even in Egypt during that time – but he’s now been caught up in the midst of its aftermath. There will be many in Sydney today that will be hoping and praying that on the 30th of June this year, Greste will be home. I will be one of them – and I hope he will be followed not only by Fahmy and Mohammed, but many, many others.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.
 

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