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

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The failed French presidential candidates who refuse to endorse Emmanuel Macron

While the candidates of the main left and right parties have endorsed the centrist from nowhere, others have held back. 

And breathe.

At 8pm on Sunday night France, Europe, and much of the West let out a huge sigh of relief. After over a month of uncertainty, scandals, rebounds, debates and late surges, the results of the first round of the French Presidential Election was as predicted: Emmanuel Macron (24 per cent) will face off against Marine Le Pen (21 per cent) in the second round of the election on the 7 May.

While polls have been predicting this face-off for a while, the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had thrown polling predictions into doubt. But France has a good track record when it comes to polling, and their surveys are considered some of the most reliable in the world. The irony is that this uncertainty has meant that the polls have never been so central to a campaign, and the role of polling in democracies has been a hot topic of debate during the election.

The biggest surprise in many ways was that there were no surprises. If there was a surprise, it was a good one: participation was higher than expected: close to 80 per cent – on par with the Presidential Elections of 2012 – whereas there were concerns it would be as low as 70 per cent. Higher participation is normally a bad sign for the extremes, who have highly motivated voters but a limited base, and who often do better in elections when participation is low. Instead, it boosts the traditional parties, but here instead of the traditional right-wing Republican (Fillon is at 20 per cent) or Socialist parties (Hamon at 6 per cent), it was in fact the centre, with Emmanuel Macron, who benefited.

So France has so far not succumbed to the populist wave that has been engulfing the West. The contagion seemed to be spreading when the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on reforming the constitution, but the fightback started in Austria which rejected the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its Presidential election and voted for the pro-European, former-Green independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Those hopes now rest on the shoulders of Macron. After having dubbed Angela Merkel the leader of the free world during his farewell tour of Europe, Barack Obama gave his personal blessing to Macron last week.

Many wondered what impact Thursday night’s shooting on the Champs-Elysées would have. Would it be a boon for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform? Or even right-wing François Fillon’s more traditional law and order approach? In the end the effect seems to have been minimal.

In the second round, Macron is currently predicted to beat Marine Le Pen by more than 60 per cent of the vote. But how does Le Pen almost double her vote in the second round, from around 20 per cent to close to 40 per cent? The "Republican Front" that saw her father off back in 2002, when he received only 18 per cent of the vote, has so far held at the level of the two traditional political parties. Both Hamon and Fillon have called to vote for Macron in the second round to stop the Front National - Hamon put it nicely when he said he could tell the difference between political opponents, and opponents of the Republic.

But not everyone is toing the line. Sens Commun, the anti-gay marriage group that has supported Fillon through thick and thin, said that it will not call to vote for either party – a thinly veiled invitation to vote for Le Pen. And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative, Catholic and anti-EU right wing candidate, whose 5 per cent is the reason Fillon didn’t make it to the second round, has also abstained from calling to vote for either. It is within this electorate that Le Pen will look to increase her vote.

The other candidate who didn’t call to vote for anyone was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who fell back on a demagogic position of saying he would follow the wishes of his supporters after having consulted them. But as a spokesperson for the FN pointed out, there are remarkable congruities between their respective platforms, which can be categorised as a populism of the left and a populism of the right.

They in particular converge over the question of Europe. Aping Brexit, both want to go to Brussels to argue for reform, and if none is forthcoming put membership of the Eurozone to the electorate. While Le Pen’s anti-Europeanism is patent, Mélenchon’s position is both disingenuous and dangerous. His Plan A, as he puts it, is to attempt reform at the European level. But he knows fine well that his demands, which include revoking the independence of the European Central Bank and putting an end to austerity (the ECB, through its massive programme of quantitative easing, has already been trying to stimulate growth) will not be met. So he reverts to his Plan B, which is to leave the European Treatises and refound Europe on a new basis with like-minded members.

Who those members might be he hasn’t specified, nor has he explained how he would leave the EU - at least Le Pen had the decency to say she would put it to a referendum. Leaving the European Treatise has been in his programme from the beginning, and seems to be the real object of his desires. Nonetheless, having set himself up as the anti-Le Pen candidate, most of his supporters will vote for Macron. Others will abstain, and abstention will only help Le Pen. We’ve been here before, and the last thing we need now is complacency.

 

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