Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi revealed Thursday that he was considering the possibility of pardoning two imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists. On the surface, it appears as though Sisi is finally beginning to heed the outcry over Egypt’s recent record on press freedoms, even perhaps indicating a willingness to address some of the judicial excesses that have resulted in the imprisonment of countless political dissidents in the country over the past year and a half. However, the move actually reveals just how deeply authoritarian the former military chief has become while also underscoring the need for the nationalistic public support that has allowed his government to continue its repressive practices, according to Middle East experts.
Sisi had previously acknowledged his discomfort with the verdicts that imprisoned journalists Mohammed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohammed back in June. The five-month trial, which resulted in the three men being found guilty of defamation and supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood organization, was widely decried by international governments and human rights groups. The journalists denied the allegations and many observers have criticized the arrests for being politically motivated.
Following the verdict, Sisi said that if it were up to him, the journalists would have been deported instead and that the trial had been bad for Egypt. He also maintained his inability to interfere in the workings of the Egyptian judiciary, saying that doing so would undermine the independence of the courts.
That changed last week when Sisi issued a decree authorizing the repatriation of non-Egyptian convicts. Speculation that this new law could possibly be used to free the Al Jazeera journalists seemed to be confirmed by Sisi’s assurance that the "the matter is being discussed to solve the issue" in an interview with France 24 on Wednesday. "If we find that this is appropriate for Egyptian national security, then we will do it," he said.
Far from guaranteeing Egyptian national security, this measure will only serve to entrench Sisi’s authoritarianism, said Mohammed Fadel, a law professor at the University of Toronto and an expert on Egyptian politics. “[The move] is just another way in which Sisi is undermining the rule of law by giving himself broad discretionary powers,” Fadel said.
The release of the journalists also would not address the fundamental issue of basic freedoms in Egypt, according to Samer Shehata, an associate professor of Middle East studies at the department of international and area studies at the University of Oklahoma. “The bad news is that there are still 16,000 to 18,000 Egyptians in jail for political reasons,” he said.
By giving himself the power to circumvent Egyptian court rulings, Sisi is equipping himself with a valuable tool in ensuring that the nationalistic fervor his government has whipped up does not have undesirable consequences for Egypt’s foreign affairs, according to Fadel. “Sisi wants to have the tools to quietly intervene in situations where Westerners confront the Egyptian legal system before things get out of hand. He realizes it’s one thing to persecute Egyptians, but it’s another thing to throw Westerners in jail, and wants to prevent the courts from embarrassing Egypt,” Fadel said.
There is a slight risk here for the leader, who has built an image as a nationalist hero confronting Egypt’s powerful enemies. This image has been eagerly reinforced by the Egyptian media, which has become almost invariably pro-government -- in no small part due to the military-backed government’s restrictive crackdown on political dissent. “He's walking a tightrope. He needs to maintain this jingoism domestically, but he can't allow it to dictate foreign relations policy,” said Fadel.
There is also the matter of the optics of freeing Westerners while leaving an Egyptian in jail. Sisi’s repatriation decree would mean that only two of the journalists could be granted a reprieve, namely, Peter Greste and Mohammed Fahmy, Australian and Egyptian-Canadian nationals, respectively. Baher Mohammed, an Egyptian national, would likely have to serve out the rest of his ten-year sentence in Egypt.
“There's certainly a risk that many of the hyper nationalists that support Sisi could be alienated if they see him as deporting foreigners, particularly western foreigners who violate Egyptian laws, while prosecuting Egyptians,” said Fadel.