The Al Jazeera case: Egypt’s descent into fear, loathing and televised raids on places of debauchery

Some recent developments in Egypt: raids on an “atheists’ café” and on a bathhouse for “debauchery”, 439 civilians sent for military trials for “rioting” with a new (and unacceptable) law being applied retroactively, a prominent analyst denied entry to the country, and more than 600 children reportedly being kept in a freezing-cold underground prison at a police camp near Cairo as part of an investigation into allegations of assaulting police officers and joining terrorist groups.

And this is just the past few weeks. Such is life in Egypt these days - a never-ending stream of fundamental freedoms undermined and human rights set aside, with a state apparatus apparently growing more intolerant by the day.

A recent Committee to Protect Journalists report on the jailing of journalists around the world listed 12 media workers behind bars in Egypt, more than double the 2013 figure (and there would be several more if the Egyptian authorities could get their hands on another group who’ve been sentenced in absentia to long jail terms). There are now more jailed journalists in Egypt than in Russia, Belarus, Cuba, Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia put together, a sorry state of affairs for which the authorities appear to have no regrets.

With the emblematic and much-discussed case of the “Al Jazeera Three” - Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed - things are slightly different. Such has been the groundswell of outrage over their jailing for “supporting terrorism” - months of taped-mouth solidarity selfies from journalists, the #FREEAJSTAFF hashtag cropping up widely - that President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has apparently reversed his earlier hardline support for their imprisonment. Last month he suggested that two of the three (Fahmy and Greste, both foreign nationals) might receive pardons, though the Egyptian Baher Mohamed would seemingly remain in prison to serve his full ten years. (Recall, by the way, that Mohamed got three years longer than Fahmy and Greste because a bullet casing - a casing, not a bullet - which he said he picked up as souvenir was taken to be evidence of some kind of criminal behaviour).

The early release scenario is all guesswork though, based on little more than a few cryptic remarks from the president and the passage of a law which grants him powers to pardon foreigners (no mercy for the locals though).

Last month I happened to meet Peter Greste’s brother Andrew, who was in London to attend the Amnesty Media Awards event which focused heavily on the plight of Peter, Fahmy and Mohamed. Andrew did a clutch of media interviews about his brother and his brother’s colleagues. Going calmly from camera to camera, nursing a glass of wine (and in the process breaking one of the first rules of media interview training: don’t drink beforehand!), Andrew seemed to win everyone over with his modest manner, a ready smile and a magnificently broad Australian accent. (Yeah mate, fair dinkum, he was good bloke etc etc).

Like quite a few people I’ve met in the past, Andrew was in that strange position of being thrust into the limelight (he’s a farmer, not a political advocate or a journalist) because it was, as he saw it, the only way to help a family member wrongly imprisoned. It shouldn’t have to come to this, but with Egypt this is by now almost normal.

The Al Jazeera case is of course just the most visible part of the iceberg (or just the tip of the pyramid if you like). Since the 2013 coup and the merciless crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egypt government’s suppression of all opposition - and indeed suppression also of “outsider” lifestyles like people perceived to be gay - appears to be boundless. Who are they coming for next I wondered back in August, and it now seems a more pressing question than ever.

(And another question is: who are they coming for next with television crews in tow? Because not the least disturbing part of the bathhouse case is the fact that a media company - the Alqahira wal Nas channel and its Al-Mostakhbai programme presented by Mona Iraqi - was there filming the 7 December arrests, as men were hauled out of the bathhouse and dumped into the surrounding streets semi-naked. The Alqahira wal Nas film was supposedly designed to expose a “den for spreading AIDS in Egypt”, but looks more like a politicised set-up. As the Egyptian journalist Hossam Bahgat has remarked, the bathhouse filming is closer to a “collapse of Egyptian media ethics” than an example of investigative journalism. Is this what the Al-Sisi government now expects of its journalists?)

In the current issue of Vanity Fair Tony Blair reiterates his well-known support for the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood (they were “a disaster” for Egypt) and his qualified support for Al-Sisi’s government (“That doesn’t mean I don’t criticise them for some of the things that happened in Egypt”). It’s all too common, and essentially what Cairo wants to hear. Instead of this unmistakable moral equivocation and mealy-mouthed quasi-support for locking up journalists and gunning down unarmed protesters in the street, the likes of Tony Blair should be standing up for free speech and human rights. Maybe he could at least tweet the hashtag #FREEAJSTAFF …?

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