The gates to Tora prison and court in Cairo. (Photo by the author.)
Having sat through the previous hearing of Australian journalist Peter Greste's trial in Cairo, I quickly came to the conclusion that the trial is purely political. With hearings due to resume today, so far no credible evidence that Greste spread 'false news' supporting the Muslim Brotherhood has been presented.
Greste, who was arrested along with two Al Jazeera colleagues on 29 December, is caught up in Egypt's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, a trend that's gaining momentum in the Gulf states and in particular Saudi Arabia. As Qatar's neighbours move against it and its television network Al Jazeera, Peter Greste's predicament could become a little more complicated.
Andrew Greste, brother of Peter, outside the courtroom during the previous hearing. (Photo by the author.)
Proceedings inside Cairo's Tora prison are farcical. During the previous hearing earlier this month, I watched Peter cling to his cage in the dock, unable to follow the proceedings. For a second time the court did not provide a translator, despite requests.
As the judge fumbled through the evidence, three of Qatar's neighbours were making diplomatic moves to isolate the emirate. As I left the courtroom I started to hear reports that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were recalling their ambassadors from Qatar. It was an unprecedented public split between the Gulf monarchies, which usually manage their disagreements firmly behind closed doors.
The Saudi-led trio said they had acted because Qatar failed to honour a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement signed on 23 November 2013 not to back 'anyone threatening the security and stability of the GCC whether as groups or individuals — via direct security work or through political influence, and not to support hostile media'.
The Gulf states were furious with Qatar for supporting Islamist groups abroad and using Al Jazeera to broadcast their views, in particular those of influential Brotherhood cleric Yusuf Qaradawi, who lives in Doha.
Two days after the ambassadors were recalled, Saudi Arabia followed Egypt's lead in labeling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. The Saudis have a keen interest in keeping Egypt close, a counter to Iran's growing influence in the region. Anxiety over US policy interests and alliances has increased in the Gulf following the thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran.
The following week, Egyptian military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi arrived in the United Arab Emirates for what looked like a presidential visit. Gulf states have showered Egypt with billions of dollars since the army removed President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The UAE has sent $4.9 billion and Saudi Arabia has promised an additional $4 billion in aid.
On Friday, President Obama will travel to Saudi Arabia to meet with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh. The White House had considered holding a Gulf Cooperation Council summit in an attempt to smooth divisions between allies in the gulf. According to Obama's national security adviser Susan Rice, they had begun 'preliminary consultations' but then abandoned the idea. 'The situation between and among the members of the GCC has grown more complex of late,' Rice told reporters.
The regional momentum against the Brotherhood, led by Saudi Arabia, could make things more difficult for Egypt's judiciary to exonerate the three Al Jazeera journalists. Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohammed are accused of joining or aiding and abetting a terrorist organization — the Muslim Brotherhood. If, in the new Egypt, this charge is considered so serious, it's difficult to see how the Government can walk away from the allegations and still save face.
Amid the regional rift, however, Egypt's interim president offered some hope. In response to a letter from Greste's parents, Adly Mansour, also the Head of Egypt's constitutional court, says he 'will spare no effort...notwithstanding the independence of the judiciary' to quickly resolve the case. That's encouraging because when I was in the court I counted six more witnesses who could easily take a further six months to get through.
If the Egyptian interim president is true to his word, Peter Greste may be spared, not through the independence of the judiciary but through political intervention. Serious doubts remain, however, over Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed, who holds only Egyptian citizenship. They could still be made the scapegoats of what is now a region-wide campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and those who support them.