They are reporters not just for a name-brand outlet, but for Al Jazeera, the Qatari government-funded satellite news service that, at one point, was arguably the most powerful and globally visible organisation in world media. Greste is an Australian citizen and one of the most respected television correspondents on the sub-Saharan Africa beat. The journalists’ imprisonment seemed so provocative that, at the time of their arrests six months ago, it appeared to be a blunt form of bullying from an Egyptian military leadership that resented Qatari support for the ousted Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammad Morsi.
But today, Greste, Fahmy, and Mohammad were sentenced to up to 10 years in prison on charges of terrorism and reporting false news. Al Jazeera was always a target of Egypt’s new leadership because of the network’s perceived support for Morsi, and Greste’s final report before his arrest was about the deteriorating conditions in the country.
Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah el Sisi’s government has had any number of opportunities to release the journalists and to prove that the confinement of foreign journalists from outlets connected to rival governments isn’t official state policy.
Instead, the trio are collateral damage in a face-off that encapsulates the ever-fluid state of the Middle East in the years after the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in late 2010. They’re hostages of an autocratic Egyptian government, and victims of a failed Qatari gamble on the future of the region — and the opposition between Egypt and Qatar that resulted from it. And they’re victims of a new official mentality in Cairo and the broader region, where journalists are viewed increasingly as enemies, and as synonymous with the agendas of the people who employ them.
Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammad Morsi was part of a broader Qatari strategy in the Middle East. The resource-rich Gulf monarchy believed that the apparent democratization of parts of the Arab world in the wake of the “Arab Spring” would unleash a wave of support for Islamist political parties — who the Qataris could then leverage to spread their influence and keep the tiny country insulated from regional instability.
For a time, their investment of money and political capital seemed to be paying off. Ennahada, Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood franchise, won a plurality of the country’s first post-uprising elections in 2011. The Brotherhood made significant electoral gains in Egypt, culminating in Morsi’s election as president in the summer of 2012. Qatar pledged $400 million in assistance to Hamas-ruled Gaza and is even providing development and investment funds to Sudan’s cash-strapped and deeply isolated Islamist government.
Qatar briefly seemed like a soft-power juggernaut. A country with only 300,000 citizens has a powerful media brand and hosts a major U.S. air base. For a time, the country seemed to have bet correctly on an Islamist wave that looked capable of replacing the Middle East’s stodgy secular autocrats.
But Qatari gains rapidly evaporated. “The Qataris took a number of extremely ambitious stances over the course of the Arab Spring in support of Muslim Brotherhood movements and governments and dramatically overextended themselves,” David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies who specialises in Gulf affairs, explained to Business Insider.
The Ennahda government in Tunisia became deeply unpopular. Qatari support for various Islamist movements unsettled the other Gulf states and led to a diplomatic rift with its neighbours. Morsi’s overreach stoked fury among Egyptians, millions of whom took to the streets in June of 2013 to protest the one-year anniversary of his rule.
On July 3, 2013, the Egyptian military removed Morsi from power and began cracking down on Muslim Brotherhood supporters — a group that, in the government’s view, included Qatar and the staff of its satellite TV station.
Weinberg explained that the Al Jazeera prosecutions might be meant to bolsters Sisi’s domestic narrative that outside forces were plotting a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt. “It enables the government in Cairo to stick to its nationalist agenda of criticising external intervention and conspiracies to impose what they see as an illegitimate Brotherhood dictatorship,” he said. “They can point to it as a reminder of Morsi’s Islamist foreign support.”
Sisi’s anti-Qatar stance extends beyond just internal politics, though. Qatar and Egypt do not have good relations. Egypt does not have an ambassador in Doha. Qatar and Egypt exchanged diplomatic letters after Sisi’s inauguration as president, but their relationship doesn’t look like it’s due for a sudden upgrade.
Last week, it seemed as if the two countries were at least ready to settle the issue of Greste, Fahmy, and Mohamad’s imprisonment. Al Jazeera journalist Abdulla Al-Shamy was released from prison on June 16. On June 18, BuzzFeed reported that Al Jazeera employees in Cairo had been told that the organisation would scale down its presence in Cairo in return for the three journalists’ release.
That didn’t happen. The Egyptian-Qatari impasse continues — and the Egyptians are taking it out on journalists, including one with Australian citizenship.
This is partly the result of an increasingly oppressive media environment under Sisi. Committee to Protect Journalists advocacy director Courtney Radsch explained that 65 journalists have been imprisoned in Egypt since Morsi’s removal, while 14 remain behind bars. “It’s become so politicized especially in the wake of Morsi’s ouster that it’s difficult for journalists to not take a position,” Radsch told Business Insider. “It’s difficult for then to kind of maintain their objectivity.”
Radsch fears that other governments will follow Sisi’s lead in deciding that all journalists are fair game — or that they can be treated as the extension of larger conflicts between governments and states.
“The chilling effect of this verdict is going to be felt even far beyond just Egypt,” she says.
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