Sunday 24 Feb 2019 | 08:36 | SYDNEY
Sunday 24 Feb 2019 | 08:36 | SYDNEY

Egypt: Peter Greste (and don't forget the rest)



24 June 2014 10:29

In passing comment on the seven-year jail sentence handed down to Australian journalist Peter Greste, it would be all too easy just to join the swollen ranks of the indignant.

You would certainly be in good company. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has described the verdict as 'appalling'. US Secretary of State John Kerry said it was 'chilling and draconian'. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was 'dismayed'. On social media the less famous have also expressed their outrage and support for Greste.

The sentence is, of course, a howling miscarriage of justice and a tragedy for Greste and his family. But our indignation at what happened in Egypt yesterday should not have begun with Greste's sentencing, nor should it end with it.

In the first place, we should spare a little indignation for the treatment of Greste's co-accused Mohamed Fahmy, who also received a seven-year sentence, and Baher Mohammed, sentenced to ten years. Indeed, one wonders how much indignation their sentences would have provoked internationally had Fahmy and Mohammed not been standing in the same dock as Greste.

But even they, alongside Greste, are a small part of a much bigger story that has been playing out in Egypt for many months now. This is a point well made in an excellent piece by HA Hellyer on al Arabiya, published just prior to the sentences being handed down. Hellyer argues the implausibility of the charges against Greste, Fahmy and Mohammed, but also puts their arrest into the context of the 40,000-odd people detained in the last year.

This too is 'chilling and draconian', and yet our political leaders have been somewhat less appalled and dismayed at the dramatic crackdown on all forms of dissent since last year's coup. If anything, Western political leaders seem to be falling into old habits, turning a blind eye for the sake of building a stronger relationship with the new regime.

As one Guardian pundit noted, this can have embarrassing consequences. Secretary of State Kerry was in Egypt just hours before the Greste verdict was handed down for a talk with the Egyptian president that apparently included a 'candid' discussion of human rights. The Greste verdict also follows hot on the heels of the Obama Administration's decision to thaw a considerable portion of the US$575 million in military aid to Egypt, frozen by Congress in the aftermath of last July's coup.

But what makes all of this embarrassing is not just that it presaged the Greste verdict but that it has followed months and months of arbitrary arrests and intimidation of ordinary Egyptians, who collectively don't seem to warrant the attention of the international community.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott's recent intervention also demonstrated the difficulty of trying to separate Greste's case from what is happening in Egypt more broadly. On the eve of the sentencing he called President Sisi to plead Greste's case, while at the same time congratulating Sisi 'on the work that the new government of Egypt had done to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood'.

Abbott may have been trying to show a bit of diplomatic nouse: show sympathy for Sisi's domestic agenda in the hope of extricating Greste from that agenda. Abbott reassured Sisi that Greste was 'reporting the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than supporting the Muslim Brotherhood'. But the new regime draws no distinction between the two, and its not just because Greste was working for al Jazeera, which the Egyptian military accuses of being the media arm of the Brotherhood. In fact, it matters little to the regime that Greste has no connection or sympathy for the Brotherhood. The crackdown goes way beyond the Brotherhood to include anyone, Islamist or secular, that threatens the regime, including journalists unprepared to toe the government line.

It is these arrests that make a mockery of the regime's claim that it is only fighting terrorists. Indeed, even if every charge the regime has made against the Muslim Brotherhood is true (and some of them are), this still does not explain or excuse the wider crackdown.

Journalists like Greste are being arrested or intimated precisely because, to use the words of the Prime Minister, they 'report the Brotherhood', or anything else the regime does not like. What the Greste case demonstrates is that both as a matter of principle, and on very practical grounds, the international community cannot turn a blind eye to the wider assault on Egyptian citizens while expecting special protections for its own.

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