After spending more than 300 days in an Egyptian jail, there’s hope that Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste, along with other foreign nationals, might be able to return home thanks to a new decree issued by the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Passed last Wednesday, the decree gives government prosecutors (with approval from the cabinet) the power to request Sisi deport foreigners accused of a crime on Egyptian soil. Does this mean Greste will be able to return home, or is this more false hope for the troubled country?
Why is Greste in trouble in the first place?
Over the past year, news about the turmoil in Egypt has calmed, but the political crackdown on journalists has continued.
Since the deposing of the Muslim Brotherhood political party following the coup d’etat by Sisi on July 3 last year, many local and foreign journalists have been imprisoned for a number of charges ranging from classically totalitarian, to overtly authoritarian, including: “disturbing the peace”; “spreading chaos”; “joining a group that aims to disrupt the law”; “fabricating news to aid the Muslim Brotherhood”; and “demonstrating without permission”.
Greste was arrested alongside Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed. Greste, arrested on December 29, 2013, was charged with “distorting the country’s image abroad” and “fabricating news to aid the Muslim Brotherhood”; he was found guilty in a trial that many saw as a kangaroo court.
Since his arrest, the Al Jazeera homepage has kept a tally of the number of days they have been imprisoned. As of today, the figure stands at 323 days.
Was the trial fair?
Greste was imprisoned in solitary confinement for a month before any charges were laid against him. During his time in Tora prison, Greste penned a letter about how Sisi’s government silenced dissenting voices.
“The state will not tolerate hearing from the [Muslim Brotherhood] or any other critical voices. The prisons are overflowing with anyone who opposes or challenges the government. Secular activists are sentenced to 3 years with hard labor for violating protest laws after declining an invitation to openly support the government.”
During the trial, prosecutors presented evidence that was irrelevant, including: footage of a press conference in Nairobi; a video package about horse welfare in Egypt; and a song by Australian musician Gotye. Many videos were also shown to sitting Judge Mohamed Nagi Shehata in private, without Greste’s defence able to view them. There were also examples of extortion.
Two of the three Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced to seven years, and Baher Mohamed was sentenced to 10. Prosecutors originally wanted a maximum penalty of between 15 and 20 years.
What does the new law mean?
Simply put, it means that Sisi can choose which foreign nationals do, and do not, get released.
Egypt, as of right now, has no elected parliament, allowing Sisi, who wields full legislative power, to pass laws without any contention or real legal opposition. Parliamentary elections are set for next year, but are seen by opposition forces as heavily weighted towards retaining the status quo for Sisi’s government.
In an article published by the weekly Egyptian publication Al-Ahram, Egypt’s Socialist Popular Alliance Party head Abdel Ghafar Shukr said the next parliament would “have a council compliant with the executive authorities if not dominated by it”.
This means the new law, for now and the foreseeable future, is entirely dependent on one man — Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
What does with mean for Greste and the other Al Jazeera jouralists?
One of two things will happen: either Greste will leave Egypt or he will not.
Sisi voiced his opinion in October that the best way to deal with violations committed by foreign journalists was deportation. This, along with the new law, are interpreted by some as the Egyptian government’s way of “relieving pressure”, as Egyptian Revolutionary Council chair Maha Azzam, a key opposition figure, put it. “The Egyptian regime is feeling the pressure … and trying to find a way out,” he said. He added:
“You can’t throw journalists and innocent people in prison and then try to find, tactically, a way out by deporting them or sending them back to their countries of origin and feel that you’ve dealt with the situation.”
If this is the case, Greste will come home to be tried or serve his sentence, as the law stipulates, although it’s doubtful Australian courts will accept Gotye as legal evidence. Greste also possesses Latvian citizenship, but it seems unlikely he will be shipped off to the Baltic.
Mohamed Fahmy holds Canadian-Egyptian citizenship, although he recently said he did not want to be deported.
The trio of Al Jazeera journalists will appeal their convictions on January 1, 2015; Sisi will most likely let the world know what he intends to do with the imprisoned journalists after that.
But even if this law leads to the release of Greste and the other political prisoners, it’s important to remember that journalists throughout the country are hounded and harangued for even the slightest reasons.
French journalist and editor of Le Monde Diplomatique Alain Gresh and two other journalists were harassed by security and held for two hours earlier this week, after speaking in both English and Arabic at a cafe. A reminder that the passing of this law does not mean we’re now dealing with a friendlier, better or more tolerant government in Egypt, just one that wants the world to not notice what it’s doing.