One Freed Journalist Can't Hide Egypt's Crackdown

The release of Peter Greste still leaves tens of thousands of political prisoners detained. Despite this, the West seems happy with al-Sisi.

Peter Greste, a broadcast journalist for Al Jazeera's English-language network sentenced to a seven-year prison term in Egypt, was deported on Sunday after serving just over 13 months. Greste, an Australian who had previously worked at the BBC, returned to his native country via Cyprus on Sunday. Egyptian authorities provided no explanation for his release. The release of an Al Jazeera colleague arrested alongside Greste, an Egyptian-Canadian named Mohamed Fahmy, is expected soon.

For Greste, the deportation concludes a saga that began in December 2013 with his arrest for reporting false news. His incarceration, however, was no isolated incident. In addition to Fahmy and 10 other journalists, Greste was one of tens of thousands to become political prisoners during the 18-month reign of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a general who became Egypt's supreme leader after orchestrating a coup against president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. Since then, clashes between Egyptian security forces and protesters have claimed over 2,500 lives, and between 16,000 and 21,000 others are estimated to be incarcerated for political opposition to the regime.

Traditionally, international journalists have avoided punishment in Egypt, a country with virtually no history of press freedom. But Al Jazeera aroused al-Sisi's ire with its critical coverage of the former general's coup against Morsi. The network is headquartered in and financed by Qatar, a Persian Gulf emirate whose government backed the Morsi regime. Al Jazeera recently shut down a channel dedicated to covering Egypt, a move thought to be a reason behind Greste's release.

Meanwhile, al-Sisi's campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood has continued without interruption. Clashes between the police and protesters, who gathered last Sunday to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the uprising that removed Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's former president, from power in 2011, resulted in 20 deaths and over 500 arrests. And after bombings on Thursday killed 30 in Egypt's north Sinai region, the president blamed the Muslim Brotherhood—even though a local organization with links to the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

Despite these abuses, the West seems content with al-Sisi for the time being. The Egyptian president traveled to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last month and delivered a warmly received speech condemning terrorism. The Financial Times' Gideon Rachman noted that al-Sisi's enthusiastic reception seemed to signal the end of international support for Egyptian democracy.

"It felt like the moment when the west abandoned its on-off flirtation with the democratization of the Middle East and retreated to the old formula: the embrace of an 'Arab strongman' who offers short-term stability and the repression of militant Islamism," he wrote.