The first thing we hear is the strings. The chords are ominous as police enter the room. We see an iMac, camera equipment, a mobile phone. A voice off-camera. “Why are you so hurried? Are you scared of something?” “I’m not scared of anything,” Al Jazeera Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy insists while seated on a chair in the corner, the hand on his head betraying his nervousness.

More swoops of the room. Newspaper, drink bottles, books on Egypt’s revolution, scribbled notes. SD cards are flashed before the camera. What’s on them? We don’t know — but to the Egyptians this 22-minute arrest video is intended for, the implication of wrongdoing is blatant …

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Fahmy again. He offers US$700 for the police to go away. A common enough way to deflect attention in Egypt, but here it’s used to underline his guilt. It’s a lot of money. The music swells.

At seven minutes in, a panicked Peter Greste enters the frame. “You can read Arabic?” a gruff voice asks, in English. “Find someone to interpret for me,” Greste says. It seems a request he makes often. In the hotel room, as in the court rooms, a translator is not forthcoming. Greste sits beside Fahmy as he undergoes a lengthy interrogation in Arabic.

The police ask seemingly trivial questions. Why are the cameras set up? How do Fahmy and Greste get paid? Do they pay others to appear in their broadcasts? Who are their photographers? Why did they choose this hotel? There’s nothing specifically wrong, but specifics aren’t really the point. The evidence is obvious: Fahmy and Greste are journalists for Al Jazeera. And in Egypt today, the regime bets that’s enough to evaporate the public’s sympathy.

Since Egypt’s first post-revolutionary president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown nine months ago in a popular coup, the Muslim Brotherhood has been public enemy number one. It is deemed a terrorist organisation, and the bombing of tourist buses, the attacks on churches, and the continuing protests and unrest are, rightly or wrongly, blamed on the organisation. Al Jazeera, the channel funded with oil money out of Qatar, is seen as the mouthpiece of the Brotherhood. It’s a widely-held view, and one propagated by the Government and its own media outlets at every opportunity. The impression is also cemented by the resignation last year of 22 of Al Jazeera Egypt-based journalists over what they claimed was their network’s biased coverage.

That’s why Greste is in jail. His crime is being employed by a station that, in Arabic at least, persistently reports in favour of Egypt’s now undeniably oppressed Muslim Brothers, and consistently calls the overthrow of Morsi a military coup (as do lots of Western media outlets — it’s an understandably touchy topic in Egypt).

Much of the Australian coverage of Greste’s trial has focused on the cage he was held in (standard practice in Egyptian courts) and the delays in his trial. But in being charged at all, Greste is in a minority of those who’ve been rounded up by the regime in recent months.

When it comes to journalists, particularly Western ones, most are held only for short periods of time. But the Committee to Protect Journalists lists five journalists imprisoned for long periods in Egypt in 2013. One of them is Greste’s colleague, Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah Elshamy, who has been in jail since August. He still hasn’t been formally charged, and has been on a hunger strike for the past four weeks.

It’s not just journalists who have to worry. One of Egypt’s best-known bloggers, Alaa Abd El Fattah, spent his 100th day in prison last Thursday. No court date has been assigned to him. Egypt’s Islamists are even less likely to have their extended prison stays documented or noticed.

Greste is a Westerner — a citizen of Australia and Latvia. That counts for something in Egypt. It’s unusual he hasn’t been released already. American journalist Jeremy Hodge was released without charge four days after being arrested in his apartment earlier this year. That’s normally the way it goes when the police want to frighten rather than imprison — they grab someone and, after some time, quietly let them go. As unusual as Greste’s case is, and as bound up as it is with the fate of his Al Jazeera colleagues, it’s likely he’ll be released sooner or later. After a message is sent.

There’s an election coming up in Egypt, and Army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will almost certainly nominate himself. He’ll win in a landslide — he’s very popular. If he or his allies can keep everyone treading on eggshells for fear of arrest, his coronation will go a lot smoother.

At the end of the day, it’s not English-speaking reporters the regime fears — it’s those broadcasting in Arabic. Greste’s arrest sends a powerful message. If an Australian can be bought low, what chance do Egyptians have?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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