The wave of protests that spread through the Middle East beginning in late 2010 was supposed to usher in a democratic opening for a region living under the heel of long-tenured autocrats. But Monday’s sentencing of three Al Jazeera journalists to long prison terms on trumped-up charges of terrorism and falsely reporting the news is the most high-profile freedom of expression-related controversy of the post-“Arab Spring” period.
It’s just the latest sign that things have gone horribly off-course in the region in the years since the popular uprisings began.
The Al Jazeera verdict is the grimly ironic end-result of the protests that swept Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, in early 2011. The country’s political space rapidly opened in the months after president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February of that year — only to snap shut again after a brief and deeply flawed experiment with representative democracy ended with a military coup in July of 2013.
For Al Jazeera journalists specifically, the site of the most iconic protests of the “Arab Spring” might now be as hostile an environment as the world’s most severe conflict zone.
“I think Syria maybe is the only other place that’s as dangerous for us as Egypt right now,” Amjad Atallah, Al Jazeera’s regional director for the Americas, told Business Insider.
It’s true there’s been a broader press crackdown in Egypt in the year since the military’s ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammad Morsi. But at least some of the dangers in Egypt are specific to Al Jazeera, which receives significant funding from the Qatari government.
As Michael Stevens, deputy director of the Royal United Service Institute’s Qatar office, explained in an email to Business Insider, the prosecution of Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohammad Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed is an outgrowth of larger Qatari-Egyptian tensions.
“The Al Jazeera issue is essentially a way of trying to punish Qatar for the stance it took on Egyptian issues,” Stephens wrote, referring to Qatar’s political and economic support for Morsi’s government, which the military removed amid popular protests last June. “It is the best tool Egypt has for embarrassing Qatar publicly and harming the image of their crown jewel which of course is Al Jazeera.”
Stephens believes that the opposition between the two countries transcends international relations and is best thought of as a raw form mutual of dislike. “Both sides are simply angry at each other rather than it being a diplomatic spat anymore,” Stephens wrote. “It seems to be almost a personal enmity.”
Egypt actually managed to hold multiple democratic elections in the years after Mubarak was overthrown and even elected Morsi as the first civilian president in its history during the summer of 2012. Today, it’s the kind of country where journalists pay the price for political spats that have very little to do with them.
Atallah says it’s possible that there’s a larger geopolitical dynamic to Greste, Fahmy, and Mohamed’s imprisonment. “Mohammad Fahmy shouted from his cage that they were pawns in the fight between the Egyptian and Qatari government,” Atallah said [see here]. “That’s a perspective that at least one of the defendants shared. It may be the case. But if it is the case, then they’re really just hostages and it’s an attempt of one government to influence another government’s policies and behaviours.”
He doesn’t believe this is legitimate or fair, even if Qatar and Egypt do have their problems with one another.
“We are subsidized by Qatar but we’re state-funded, we’re not state-run,” Atallah said. “Qatar’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Egypt is between Qatar and Egypt.”
The Egyptian government, led by general-turned-president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, obviously disagrees. On Tuesday, Sisi indicated that he is unwilling to pardon the three journalists. The Egyptian government is flatly rejecting the possibility of an off-ramp, at least for the time being.
They’re sending a blunt message that journalists are fair game in disputes between Egypt and other countries, and that freedom of expression depends solely on the government’s perceived interests.
It’s a far cry from the promises of the initial “Arab Spring” period. Atallah isn’t hopeless though and says that Al Jazeera isn’t even considering the possibility of the three serving out the entirety of their sentences.
“We’re not going to accept the thought that they will be there indefinitely,” Atallah says.
“Doing enough means that we actually get them out,” he added. “When we get them out we can say we’ve all done enough.”
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.