Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleagues stand inside a cage during their trial. Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

Egypt’s Al Jazeera verdict: the death of the free press

The three Al Jazeera journalists sentenced to seven years in jail in an Egyptian court room today should never have been tried in the first place. And yet, the day before their verdict, the US government released £338m of military aid to Egypt's repressive new rulers. 

Let’s start with the basics. The three Al Jazeera journalists sentenced to seven years in jail in an Egyptian court room today should never have been tried in the first place. There was no case against them. The Australian correspondent Peter Greste, the Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohmmed Fahmy and their Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed were all charged with “terrorism-related offences”, including destabilising the country and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s former ruling party, which was branded a terrorist organisation in December 2013.

In another context, their trial could have been a black comedy, so ridiculous was the “evidence” presented against them. Their satellite phone – standard equipment for jobbing journalists reporting on a revolution in a country where the phone lines are constantly cut – was paraded in front of a crowded court room as high-tech spy equipment. The videos screened as evidence of their covert support for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood included a Sky News documentary on horse welfare, a BBC documentary about Somalia and a song by the Australian singer Gotye. Local media toed the government line by referring to the journalists as the “Marriot cell” after the hotel where the journalists were staying.

The only “crime” Greste, Fahmy and Mohammed can be accused of is a commitment to journalism in a country keen to suppress inconvenient truths. Since Egypt’s July 2013 revolution – which saw the replacement of Egypt’s only democratically elected but deeply unpopular president Mohammed Morsi with a military-backed government – the security forces have conducted a campaign of brutal repression. Last summer, hundreds of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed and thousands injured when security forces opened fire on protests. Since then, hundreds more have been sentenced to death, and even secular critics of Egypt’s new government face jail.

These Al Jazeera journalists reported on the bloodshed and interviewed Muslim Brotherhood members. No journalist with an interest in reporting the truth could have neglected to do so. But they faced two problems. First, from its first days in power, Egypt’s new government has sought to muzzle the media. Second, Al Jazeera is financed by Qatar – one of the biggest funders and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. This means the news channel – once seen as a champion of the Arab Spring because of its coverage of government atrocities and popular protests – is now loathed, by both the Egyptian government and large chunks of the public.

There is no doubt that today’s verdict is not only a personal tragedy for these journalists, but a dark day for Egypt’s revolution. It is symbolic of the Egyptian state’s disregard for freedom of press, freedom of speech and individual rights. The verdict comes just a day after 182 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were sentenced to death in a mass trial. It is tragic to remember that in 2011 hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in defence of their freedom and to demand the overthrow of their dictator, Hosni Mubarak. This isn’t just a return to the Mubarak era – it’s much worse.

I had hoped that the international attention on the Al Jazeera trial would have put pressure on the government and judiciary to back down – but no such luck. This farcical kangaroo trial is an international embarrassment for Egypt's new rulers, but when America will still help prop them up, they don't really care. The US announced yesterday that it was unlocking the £338m of military aid to Egypt that had been frozen since Morsi’s ouster.  The US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo for “candid” talks with the country’s new president, the former army chief, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, on human rights. Evidently, however, human rights were not a high enough priority for Kerry to risk America’s relationship with Egypt and withhold aid.

Greste, Mohammed and Fahmy have already spent 177 days in jail, where they have been locked up for 23 hours a day, and been denied access to newspapers and television, or any opportunity to prepare their defence. Fahmy had been refused medical treatment for a dislocated shoulder. Other defendants in the trial said they had been beaten in custody. Last week, Greste’s brother told the Guardian that Peter found his suffering “easier to handle mentally if it’s for a cause”.

The freedom of the press was on trial in Egypt today, and it lost. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

A loyalist rebranded: will Ségolène Royal run again to be the French President?

The French press is speculating about Ségolène Royal replacing François Hollande as the Socialist candidate.

“I will lead you to other victories!” Ségolène Royal told the crowds gathered in front of the French Socialist party’s headquarters on 6 May 2007.

Many at the time mocked her for making such an odd statement, just after losing to Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election. But nearly ten years on, she might just be the candidate the French left needs to win the upcoming presidential election.

There is growing speculation that the current President François Hollande – who was Royal’s partner for 30 years and the father of her four children – will not be in a position to run again. His approval ratings are so low that a defeat in next May’s election is almost inevitable. His own party is starting to turn against him and he can now only count on a handful of faithful supporters.

Royal is among them. In the past, she probably would have jumped at the opportunity to stand for election again, but she has learned from her mistakes. The 63-year-old has very cleverly rebranded herself as a wise, hard-working leader, while retaining the popular touch and strong-willed character which led to her previous successes.

Royal has an impressive political CV. She became an MP in 1988 and was on several occasions appointed to ministerial positions in the 1990s. In 2004, she was elected President of the Poitou-Charentes region in western France. In 2006, Royal won the Socialist party’s primary by a landslide ahead of the presidential election.

She went on to fight a tough campaign against Sarkozy, with little support from high-ranking members of her party. She ended up losing but was the first woman to ever go through to the second round of a French presidential election.

After that, it all went downhill. She split up with Hollande and lost the election to be party leader in 2008. She was humiliated by only getting 6.95 per cent of the votes in the 2011 Socialist presidential primary. She hit an all-time low when in 2012 she stood as the Socialist party’s official candidate to become MP for La Rochelle on the French west coast and lost to Olivier Falorni, a local candidate and Socialist party “dissident”. Royal then took a step back, away from the Parisian hustle and bustle. She continued to serve as the Poitou-Charentes regional President but kept largely out of the media eye.

Royal was very much the people’s candidate back in 2007. She drew her legitimacy from the primary result, which confirmed her huge popularity in opinion polls. She innovated by holding meetings where she would spend hours listening to people to build a collaborative manifesto: it was what she called participatory democracy. She shocked historical party figures by having La Marseillaise sung at campaign rallies and Tricolores flying; a tradition up until then reserved for right-wing rallies. She thought she would win the presidency because the people wanted her to, and did not take enough notice of those within her own party plotting her defeat.

Since then, Royal has cleverly rebranded herself – unlike Sarkozy, who has so far failed to convince the French he has changed.

When two years ago she was appointed environment minister, one of the highest-ranking cabinet positions, she kept her head down and worked hard to get an important bill on “energy transition” through Parliament. She can also be credited with the recent success of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Above all, she has been impeccably loyal to the President.

Royal has reinforced her political aura, by appearing at Hollande’s side for state occasions, to the extent that French press have even labelled her “the Vice-President”. This has given her a licence to openly contradict the Prime Minister Manuel Valls on various environmental issues, always cleverly placing herself on virtue’s side. In doing so, not only has she gained excellent approval ratings but she has pleased the Green party, a traditional ally for the Socialists that has recently turned its back on Hollande.

The hard work seems to have paid off. Last Sunday, Le Journal du Dimanche’s front-page story was on Royal and the hypothesis that she might stand if Hollande does not. She has dismissed the speculations, saying she found them amusing.

Whatever she is really thinking or planning, she has learned from past errors and knows that the French do not want leaders who appear to be primarily concerned with their own political fate. She warned last Sunday that, “for now, François Hollande is the candidate”. For now.

Philip Kyle is a French and English freelance journalist.