Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s statement yesterday that he ‘wished’ three jailed Al Jazeera journalists including an Australian had not been put on trial, though late, is a positive development. Clearly, Sisi had misjudged and miscalculated the whole affair. Jailing journalists for what they are supposed to be doing will be met with intense opposition and will never be condoned. What Sisi failed to understand until now is that Egypt can’t be an exception to this rule. The journalists -- Australia’s Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian national Baher Mohamed -- were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in jail for allegedly defaming Egypt and aiding banned Islamists, in a ruling that sparked a global outcry and demands for a presidential pardon.
The bias of the Egyptian authorities and the judiciary stemmed from the fact that these journalists belonged to Al Jazeera, with which Sisi enjoys an acrimonious relationship for obvious reasons. But the global media and international organisations don’t take it that way. For them, any action against journalists is highly reprehensible and condemnable – whether they belong to Al Jazeera or BBC.
Sisi admitted his mistake during a roundtable with Egyptian editors. “The sentencing of several journalists had a very negative effect, and we had nothing to do with it,” he was quoted as saying. “I wish they were deported after their arrest, instead of being put on trial,” he added, apparently referring to Greste, the sole non-Egyptian. The protests across the world against the arrests were huge, the enormity of which took Egyptian officials by surprise. Egyptian envoys in some capitals were summoned by governments to register their protest. Some of the criticism was stringent and came from unexpected quarters. Washington described the sentencing as ‘draconian’ and called on Sisi to release the scribes, while the United Nations said imprisoning them was ‘obscene’.
The latest development shows that Sisi is buckling under international pressure. The arrests have backfired, and showed the world that Sisi’s government is no different from the one which was thrown out after a popular revolution. The president has been struggling, quite unsuccessfully, to justify his action. Soon after the court verdict, he said he would not interfere with the courts, which, according to him “are independent”. Yesterday, he said that “we had nothing to do with it”. These are empty words. Even his supporters wouldn’t buy this argument.
The jailing of Al Jazeera journalists is bad for Egyptian journalists too. Sisi is showing no leniency in his crackdown on the media. One of the positive fallouts of the Egyptian revolution was a freeing up of the media, which were utilising that freedom in the interest of the country. That freedom has now been slaughtered.