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'Shameful' Verdict Exposes Egyptian Journalists' Fears


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We begin today with a story that's making headlines around the world. We're talking about the conviction of three journalists in Egypt in connection with their reporting. On Monday, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were found guilty of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news.

Greste and Fahmy were sentenced to seven years in prison, and Mohamed is set to serve an additional three years for possession of ammunition. They're all with the network Al Jazeera. Their detention and, now, conviction have sparked outrage. The U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, called the conviction, quote, "chilling, draconian and a setback to Egypt's transition," unquote.

As you might imagine, many news organizations around the world, including NPR, are objecting to the treatment of these journalists and are participating in a Twitter campaign around the hash tag, freeajstaff.

Now this is noteworthy because so much of Egypt's recent political transition has been chronicled by - and some even credit it to - the work of journalists and bloggers in Egypt and the region.

We wanted to hear more about the rulings and life as a journalist in Egypt right now. So we've called upon Mona Eltahawy. She's a freelance journalist who's been active in the press and on social media during and after the Arab Spring. She's with us by phone from Cairo. Mona, nice to have you back with us.

Also joining us is Basil ElDabh. He's the politics editor for Daily News Egypt. That's an independent English-language newspaper. He's also with us from Cairo. Thank you both so much for joining us.

MONA ELTAHAWY: Thank you, Michel.

BASIL ELDABH: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Mona, may I start with you? Your reaction to the ruling.

ELTAHAWY: I'm outraged. I think it's an utter disgrace and a really shameful day. I think that the charges that they were put on trial for were absolutely ridiculous. And by all accounts, from all the people who attended the trial, none of those charges have been proven.

I think it's an awful day, but I think it's also really important to put this very, very chilling trial in the perspective of the terrible crackdown that's been happening in Egypt over the past year against civil liberties in general - and to remember that there are at least 16,000 prisoners of conscience in Egyptian jails who - many of whom we know nothing about. So I think that we have a lot to be outraged about in Egypt today.

MARTIN: Basil, would you - amplify that, if you would. And I do want to mention that there were those who had hoped that the new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, might have pardoned these journalists. He has said he will not interfere. There are some who would hope that he would have overturned the verdicts or pardoned them as some sort of a gesture of conciliation. He has said he will not. So, Basil, I wanted to ask more about what you feel this is really about. What is the intention here?

ELDABH: Well, there are a few things going. First of all, there has been a lot of sort of unprecedented crackdown on the freedom of the press in Egypt. In terms of independent media, foreign and domestic, Al Jazeera has been a news organization that has been specifically called out by various members of the government at various times for, you know, allegedly presenting a Brotherhood agenda. And this goes into sort of the strange relationships between Egypt and Qatar.

So really, when we're looking at this trial - yes, it very much has to do with freedom of the press, and it will always be tied to that. But there's also sort of this aspect to go along with it where really, you know, there are political scores that, you know, are being settled between Egypt and Qatar. And really these journalists just sort of found themselves in the middle of it.

MARTIN: Mona, what about you? I think for those who follow your work, and those who've heard you on this program and others, you - may remember that you were brutally attacked in 2011 as you covered the Tahrir Square protests. You were, you know - both of your arms were broken. You were assaulted. You know, viciously - you were detained by military intelligence for about 10 hours. You know, I confess that at the time, I believed that it was because you were a woman, and as a visible woman journalist - what do you think is the real agenda here?

ELTAHAWY: I think that the fact that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as you mentioned, is our new president is one of the main things that we have to focus on here. He's the former head of military intelligence. You mentioned that I was detained by military intelligence. And we have to put this in the bigger picture of Egypt basically struggling against six decades of military rule. So the fact that the head of military intelligence is now running the country, and he's running the country - now what happened to me is by no means unusual.

In fact, I consider myself very lucky in the fact that I'm a dual citizen, so the State Department intervened. Al Jazeera and The Guardian, at the time, gave wide coverage to the fact that I had disappeared and was being detained. And because I had a profile, I think it protected me in a way that had I been, as I told you at the time, an ordinary Egyptian woman who had none of those so-called protections, I very well might have been killed. So despite what happened to me, I feel very lucky.

But if you look at the case yesterday, none of those so-called protectors have helped the journalists because of the political climate between Egypt and Qatar that Basil mentioned. And because I believe that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi understands now - and this is very sinister. He understands that he can really push the boundaries, and Egypt's international allies will do absolutely nothing because you have to remember that the verdict was passed while John Kerry was still in Egypt. And just the day before the verdict, John Kerry, the Secretary of State, told Egypt that the U.S. would release millions of dollars that had been suspended in aid to Egypt.

Just a few months ago, Apache helicopters, which had also been put on hold, were promised back to Egypt. And the Canadian government - now, Mohamed Fahmy, one of the journalists who's been convicted, is a dual citizen also - a Canadian-Egyptian. The Canadian government has said, quote, unquote, "it's disappointed." Now I think it deserves a bit more than disappointment.

So if you're in Sisi's shoes, you're former military intelligence. You know the military runs the country, and your allies are just disappointed and still give you aid, you know that you can keep pushing this.

MARTIN: If you've just joining us, we're talking about life in Egypt as journalists.

We're talking about this in the wake of the sentencing of three journalists to long prison sentences on charges of spreading false news. We're speaking with freelance writer, Mona Eltahawy and political reporter, Basil ElDabh. Both are with us from Egypt, from Cairo. So, Basil, what now? How do you proceed?

ELDABH: You know, over the last year or so, things have become increasingly difficult. You know, what to report on, you know, the - when you look at this case, they're being accused of, you know, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. And they just gave interviews to some members. We could be implicated by simply based on, you know, talking to people - you know, a certain side of the conflict which is obviously a very fundamental part of what we have to do.

At the same time, you know, there's pressure out on the street. When we're doing fieldwork, we get hassled a lot by security. In terms of our foreign reporters - we have some of those at Daily News Egypt. You know, there's a growing xenophobia out on the street and lack of trust in the foreign press - and the press in general, but the foreign press, specifically. So we're kind of seeing this increasingly hostile environment where it's becoming very difficult to do our jobs on a daily basis.

MARTIN: Well, can I ask about that? And, well, Mona - and as a freelancer, I'm wondering how it is for you? I mean, you're both Egyptian nationals, and you're both - and you both have family in the country as well. And you both write in English. I mean, what - how do you navigate that?

ELTAHAWY: Well, I, you know - personally speaking, there are many things to balance here. Just about 10 days or two weeks before our presidential election that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won in a landslide, a pro-Sisi TV anchor used a segment on her show to claim that I was basically a U.S. and an Israeli spy, and that I was being antimilitary.

And she brought on a mother to speak to her on the phone during her show who claimed that I had gone to a high school the week before to speak to students about my work. And I had answered a question about the presidential elections. And I'd said that, you know, I believed that we should end military rule. And I brought up the fact that Sisi was head of military intelligence that had during the revolution - or shortly after Mubarak stepped down - subjected Egyptian female activists to so-called virginity tests which are considered, rightfully so, sexual assault.

So this mother was on television basically saying that I had gone to the high school to brainwash her kids. So to have this said on Egyptian television and to be so clearly labeled as being antimilitary during a time that this crackdown is happening is extremely worrying. And I have, you know, my mother saying get out of the country, get out of the country. And I don't want to. I want to stay. So it is very worrying on a personal level.

Now when it comes to being a woman in Egypt, there's another level of worry because when I was attacked in 2011, I was sexually assaulted as well as had my arms broken. The levels of sexual violence in Egypt and the complete lack of safety for women on the street touches on everybody, not just me.

But this is a real concern, and we've had a rise in mob sexual assaults that they are not specific to any political group. Any Egyptian woman is - can face these sexual assaults. So you're talking about a political worry that covers - that basically affects all Egyptians. But as a woman, the fear of being sexually assaulted, again, is definitely a concern for me on a daily basis.

MARTIN: Well, can I just ask, Mona - before we let you go here - is there any leverage in this situation? Is there any leverage on the other side? Are there any voices speaking up in favor of free and thorough media presence, Mona? Is there anybody pushing against that?

ELTAHAWY: Oh, yeah, absolutely - I mean, there are incredibly courageous activists who are opposing the regime in various ways everyday. That's why I was saying earlier that it's important to put this in that larger perspective of the crackdown. A couple of days before the Al Jazeera trial verdicts, we saw at least 20 activists - peaceful protesters - taken in because they were protesting the very draconian protest law that we have in Egypt. So despite all of these fears, despite this terrible crackdown, there are still people who are willing to go out there and risk their lives in protesting.

There are others who, perhaps, don't want to be on the streets and use other forms of activism. But I think it's - the thing that keeps me in Egypt and the thing that keeps me optimistic is that unlike many years of the Mubarak regime, there is a significant enough - albeit a minority - but it's not about minorities or majorities. It's the importance of the existence of a group of Egyptians - and they do exist - who understand that a huge injustice is happening and continue to fight that injustice. As long as that group remains, that's really important. And it's important to remember that. But for people to look at Egypt just three years after Mubarak stepped down and to say you have failed, I think that, in itself, is an injustice.

MARTIN: Basil, final thought from you?

ELDABH: Yeah, I mean, moving forward, as Mona said, there are a lot of, you know - there's a core of young activists that has really kind of - they stood in front of the Military Council in 2011 and did the same under Morrissey when, you know, his regime was overseeing violations. And they're standing up now.

And I think on top of that, they're - you know, Egypt is lucky enough to have sort of, you know, some civil society and human's rights organizations that are very principled who have documented things very carefully. You know, it's a very polarized society. So to be able to stand back and have people sort of say it how it is, document things objectively, provide sources, things like that - I think this is a very important sort of cornerstone moving forward. And Egypt, at the very least, is lucky enough to have that.

MARTIN: Basil ElDabh is the politics editor for Daily News Egypt. Mona Eltahawy is a freelance journalist who writes about Arab politics and feminism. We reached them both in Cairo. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ELTAHAWY: Thank you, Michel.

ELDABH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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