A sandstorm has had Cairo under a blanket of grit for two days now. It’s pretty awful. Just a couple of minutes outside leaves you with a coating of dust and sand in your hair. Visibility is down to next to nothing and the whole city is cloaked in a jaundiced pall.
The external drabness fits the mood here. People in Egypt seem more despondent than they have been in a long time. It’s been clear for a while now that the government under the nation’s beloved President Sisi is as repressive as any that came before it. Random bomb attacks against military and police still take place in Cairo and its environs, and the insurgency in Sinai against the security forces there continues. Militants dealt a particularly debilitating blow at the end of January in coordinated attacks that killed at least 26 people. And on the fourth anniversary of the revolution, the mother of a 5-year-old boy was killed by police birdshot while marching to lay a wreath of flowers in Tahrir Square.
That’s not the end of it. This week at least dozens of soccer fans were killed when police fired teargas at a crowd trying to storm a stadium. The victims were almost all young men, between the ages of 19 and 23. The senseless deaths seemed to be more than many here could take. One friend of mine said his cab driver was fighting back tears while talking about the tragedy the next day. For the moment, the love affair between the people and Sisi’s government is cooling.
There was one positive development: the release of Peter Greste, one of the three Al Jazeera journalists who have been in prison here since last December for, well, doing their jobs. They were accused of being in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed in Egypt, and of reporting false news that damaged national security here.
The charges were preposterous. Greste and his colleagues were well known among the press corps as reputable, mainstream journalists who had worked with a number of international news outlets, including BBC and CNN. And while much of the Egyptian public believed the three were guilty (why would they have been arrested otherwise??), plenty of those in power here knew the case against them was nonsense. Prosecutors were unable to produce a shred of credible evidence against the trio. And yet, Greste languished in jail for 400 days and his colleagues are still there.
The pressure to free them was constant and considerable, and Sisi felt it. Eventually, it paid off for Greste, an Australian citizen, who was released under a recently passed law allowing for the deportation of foreigners charged with crimes. His colleague Mohamed Fadel Fahmy is Egyptian-Canadian; there were reports that he will renounce his Egyptian citizenship so he, too, can be deported. The rumor mill was in full force earlier this week, predicting that he’d be released within hours, but as of this writing he remains in jail.
The most worrisome case is that of the third journalist, Baher Mohamed. He is an Egyptian citizen with no other nationality, so the law allowing deportation doesn’t apply to him. His fate will be decided during his retrial, which is set to begin tomorrow. If Fahmy isn’t out by then, and it looks like he won’t be, he, too, will be retried. Amal Clooney (yes the heartthrob’s wife) is one of the lawyers defending Fahmy and is reportedly coming to Cairo this week to push for his release. Given how things have gone for them with the Egyptian legal system so far, I can’t imagine either man is feeling particularly positive about their prospects in court, but at least Fahmy has a possible get-out-of-jail card in his Canadian passport. And a higher court said this week that it had ordered the retrial because of a lack of evidence in the earlier proceedings, so that could be a good sign.
The whole thing has been a PR disaster for Egypt, leaving many Westerners scratching their heads as to why the government didn’t find a way to release the three a long time ago. From a local context makes more sense; it has little to nothing to do with the men who were arrested, and far more to do with a feud between Qatar and Egypt. Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera, supported the former Islamist regime in Egypt, putting it at odds with the current government here, which outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and is doing everything it can to suppress the group. What’s more, Al Jazeera, which is owned by Qatar, operated an Egyptian channel, which was sympathetic to the Brotherhood. Given that, in the eyes of ordinary Egyptians, the three men were guilty simply by association.
Recently, though, relations between Egypt and Qatar have thawed a bit, and Al Jazeera shut down its Egyptian channel—a move that some believed paved the way for Greste’s release. One can only hope that the other two men will be freed soon as well. Sadly, there are plenty of other journalists languishing in jail in near anonymity.
UPDATE: They’re out on bail. Good news, at least for now.