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Despite Australia’s diplomatic efforts, Peter Greste’s release turned on a rapprochement between Egypt and Qatar. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Improved Egypt-Qatar relations help free Peter Greste

Peter Greste celebrates his release, in Cyprus.
Credit: TWITTER

When an Egyptian prison warden stopped Peter Greste during his morning jog on Sunday and told him to quickly pack his bags, the 49-year-old Australian foreign correspondent was wary of yet another false alarm.

During his 400 days in prison, Greste had endured numerous rumours and wayward tips about his pending freedom. 

On each occasion, he had ended up back for a further stretch in the three-by-four-metre cell he shared in Cairo’s Tora Prison with his Al Jazeera colleague, Baher Mohamed, a 30-year-old producer. 

Despite a year-long campaign involving diplomats, journalists, many world leaders and members of the public, Greste’s case was at the whim of the murky world of Egyptian politics. He had no reason to believe that his run through the narrow exercise wing in Tora Prison on Sunday morning would be his last. 

“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” he told an Al Jazeera colleague in Cyprus the following day. 

“I really didn’t want to let myself believe it was happening until I got my backside on a plane with my brother Mike and we knew that, for me at least, this is over.” 

On the morning of his release, Greste had been considering his likely future and it looked much like his recent past. 

He was, he admitted later, thinking hard about his looming retrial, which was ordered on New Year’s Day and had yet again ended hopes of an early release. He was also considering plans for a fresh campaign to maintain international interest in his case and that of his two imprisoned colleagues, Mohamed and reporter Mohamed Fahmy.

Australian diplomats had been in close contact with Egyptian authorities over the case and – while they were quietly confident that a positive outcome was eventually likely – they did not know that Sunday was to be the day. This was because Greste’s release did not just depend on a carefully orchestrated diplomatic and public campaign, but on broader changes in the region over which Greste and his supporters had little control.

The effort on behalf of Greste in Cairo was overseen by the Australian ambassador to Egypt, Dr Ralph King, a career diplomat and Middle East specialist, who is fluent in Arabic and has won praise within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for deftly handling discussions with officials and avoiding any perception of outside interference. 

Officials believed the retrial order was a positive sign because it changed Greste’s status from convicted to accused, which left it open for authorities to deport him. 

But when word came through on Sunday, DFAT officials in Canberra, Cairo and Cyprus spent the day scrambling to make arrangements for his immediate release.

King, accompanied by Greste’s brother Mike, was there to meet Greste when he finally walked out of prison on Sunday morning. 

The brothers were rushed to the airport for an EgyptAir flight to Cyprus at 4.10pm, local time. Landing at Larnaca airport an hour and 20 minutes later, they were welcomed by Australian consular officials and set out for a celebratory meal of pork and beer. 

Within hours, Greste sent his first post-release tweet – with a photo showing his bare feet in the shallow waters of the Mediterranean Sea – and said he looked forward to “watching a few sunsets”.

“I haven’t seen one of those at all for a very long time,” he said in an interview with Al Jazeera. 

“Watching the stars, feeling the sand under my toes. The little things … For Egypt, this has been a big step forward. I hope Egypt keeps going down this path and releases the others.”

In Brisbane, Greste’s brother Andrew thanked the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, but admitted it was impossible to know precisely why Egyptian officials allowed Peter out.

“It’s been an unmapped pathway,” he said. “I guess we’ll never know what the key point, the trigger point, the turning point was.”

DFAT informs The Saturday Paper that Greste’s freedom was “the culmination of a long campaign by the government to advocate for his release”.

But the other ingredient – perhaps the most crucial – was a series of events in the Middle East that had begun to turn in Greste’s favour.

Paving the way for release

On the Saturday before Christmas, a meeting took place across town from Greste’s cramped prison cell. It gained little attention but helped to pave the way for his release.

It was the morning of December 20, nine days away from the one-year anniversary of the arrests of Greste and Fahmy in their room at Cairo’s Marriott Hotel, and Mohamed at home later. Their interrogation by Egyptian secret police was just the beginning of their long, tortuous ordeal, in which truth and reason were replaced by the heavy-handed, crude theatrics of predetermined justice.

The subsequent trial was too overtly farcical to be labelled Kafkaesque. 

Memorably, during the journalists’ court appearance on charges of endangering national security and supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood, prosecutors sought to prove they had fabricated evidence by presenting a Gotye music video clip and a program about sheep farming. 

“Prosecutors did not present a single piece of evidence – there wasn’t a single piece of evidence in court,” Greste told the judge, Mohamed Nagy Shehata, from inside a cage in the courtroom last June.

“It was falsified … There was no story that we manipulated.”

But the farce ended with its seemingly inevitable conclusion: seven years in prison for Greste and Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian who was Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief, and 10 years for Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian national. 

The sentences defied credibility, as Julie Bishop put it, and clearly had little to do with the rule of law. 

Instead, Greste and his colleagues were jailed because they were caught up in a worsening rift between Egypt and Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera. Relations fell apart when president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was strongly backed by Qatar, was toppled in 2013 by Egypt’s military, led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, now the president. 

When Greste arrived to report on the unrest in Cairo two weeks before his detention, it didn’t matter that he was a well-respected journalist with no connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. He wasn’t arrested for his media reports, which security officials could not distinguish from his family’s home videos.

In the aftermath, Australian diplomats tried to persuade Cairo of his imprisonment’s unfairness and press for his release. But there was little they could do to soothe Egypt’s anger towards Qatar. 

Late last year, however, a breakthrough came as relations between Egypt and Qatar began to thaw, mainly as the result of pressure from Qatar’s larger gulf neighbours, such as Saudi Arabia, whose rulers regard Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood as a domestic threat. This culminated in the fateful meeting on December 20 at Cairo’s presidential palace between Sisi and a Qatari special envoy, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, who was hand-picked by Qatar’s emir and is a member of the ruling family. Sitting beside them was a private secretary to the Saudi king.

Following the meeting, Sisi’s office said in a statement that the meeting heralded “a new era that ends past disagreements”. Two days later, Qatar closed the Egyptian channel of its Al Jazeera network, which was seen by Cairo as a mouthpiece for Sisi’s opponents. Ten days after that, Greste’s retrial was ordered. 

According to Dr H. A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow in the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, this shift in ties between Egypt and Qatar was instrumental in enabling Greste’s release.

“The thawing of relations between Egypt and Qatar, particularly after Qatar pulled the Jazeera Mubasher Misr channel, which the Egyptian government viewed as incredibly incendiary in its content, was probably the largest factor in procuring Greste’s release,” he says.

“There were others, including the international campaign. But there have been many other international campaigns for others in Egyptian jails, and they did not amount to releases.”

Described by Tony Abbott as a “reluctant jailer”, Sisi has long pointed out that he was not the president when Greste and his colleagues were arrested and that he would have deported rather than detained them.

The public campaign helped to keep up the pressure on the president, with supporters ranging from United States President Barack Obama and the United Nations to officials in Latvia, the birthplace of Greste’s father, Juris. 

In late January at Davos, Sisi revealed in an interview with Bloomberg that he was “very keen on sorting this out and getting it finished as soon as possible”. He is believed to have been anxious to end the saga before an economic donor conference at an Egyptian resort in March.

Middle East expert Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, describes the international pressure as a continuing “headache” for Sisi. He says the arrests of the so-called Marriott Cell had probably served the purpose of the security forces and the improved ties with Qatar then “made it easier to release them”. 

“There was clearly a lot of international pressure. There were some within the Egyptian leadership who were concerned this was causing major damage to the country’s international reputation. The problem is that it is not quite clear who in Egypt is calling the shots at any particular time.”

16,000 political prisoners

Despite Greste’s release, there remain some 16,000 political prisoners inside Egypt’s jails, including at least a dozen journalists. Analysts say his long-awaited emergence from Tora Prison should not be taken as a sign that Cairo has changed its brutal approach towards its perceived opponents.

“I expected Sisi might oversee a period of moderate liberalisation – nothing of the sort occurred,” Brown says. “What I expect is going to happen right now is that the situation could get worse.”

Greste appears to agree. “Special thanks to all who’ve supported us over the past year,” he stated in one of his post-release tweets. “MUST NOT FORGET THOSE STILL IN PRISON.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 7, 2015 as "Egypt’s bargain". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is the Australia correspondent for London’s Daily Telegraph.

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