The release of Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste from a jail in Cairo has been greeted as a small step forward for basic rights in Egypt. But two of his colleagues remain behind bars. The journalists are being seen as pawns in a power game between Egypt and Qatar, centered on the role of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Greste was reporting on the anti-government protests in Egypt in December 2013 - months after the military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government - when he and his two Al Jazeera colleagues were arrested.
He was released Sunday following a presidential decree allowing the deportation of foreign criminals. But his colleagues, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed, remain in a Cairo jail - along with at least 11 other journalists.
The release of Greste should not distract from the basic rights violations still taking place, says Nicholas Piachaud of Amnesty International.
“It’s a poisonous air for free speech at the moment in Egypt,” said Piachaud. “This case is just the tip of the iceberg. We have over 40,000 people, activists, believed detained as part of a sweeping crackdown on dissent.”
Al Jazeera is funded by Qatar, which is a backer of the Muslim Brotherhood.
After the 2013 military coup in Egypt, which ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government, Cairo has fought a power battle with Qatar, says Michael Stephens, head of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar.
“The three journalists were basically the three victims of a larger power play,” said Stephens. “And I think it was very obvious that Al Jazeera was seen as the prong, if you like, of Qatari influence within Egypt.”
The release of Greste is a symptom of improved relations between the two rivals in recent months - largely brokered by Saudi Arabia, says Stephens.
“It’s something I think that a number of regional powers really couldn’t accept,” said Stephens. “The two were sort of forced to try and reconcile their differences, forced to compromise.”
With the rise of the Islamic State terror group in the region, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi's hard line against political Islam has won international backers.
“People who like secular values, particularly in the West, they’ve got their tongues wagging now thinking that Sissi is the great reformer,” said Stephens. “The Emiratis are also sending out similar notes with that regard. So I think Qatar felt itself a little bit squeezed out on the edge.”
Egypt’s tough stance against the Muslim Brotherhood was underlined Monday when a court upheld death sentences against 183 alleged members of the group, who were convicted of fatal attacks against police. Fifteen policemen were killed in the attacks during protests after the Sissi-led army toppled Egypt’s first freely elected civilian President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013.
Nicholas Piachaud of Amnesty International says the trials were wholly unfair.
“This is a despicable decision,” said Piachaud. “It’s another sign that Egypt’s criminal justice system is spiraling rapidly out of control. We’ve had over 400 people sentenced to death in these kinds of mass trials.”
Meanwhile, Greste has pledged to work tirelessly for the release of his journalist colleagues.