It is the height of incongruity.
We sit sipping tea from fine china, speaking of men in a squalid cell. The Egyptian consulate in Sydney is decorated with artefacts from the country’s golden age.
This is now tarnished by decades of human rights abuses: most recently, the jailing of Australian journalist Peter Greste, Al Jazeera bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed.
We’re here – me, Hugh Rimington (Network 10), Marcus Strom (SMH), and Sophie McNeil (ABC) – as part of a delegation organised by the International Federation of Journalists, Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, IFEX and Amnesty International, to deliver 150,000 signatures and a joint statement signed by 100 media and human rights organisations, calling for:
- the immediate release of all journalists detained because of their work
- the verdict to be overturned so it’s not used as a precedent
- journalists to be free to carry out their duties without harassment, intimidation or violence
Unexpectedly, we’re ushered in for a private meeting with Vice Consul, Ahmed Farid, who is charming but direct. Much of the discussion is off-the-record. But this much is clear: the Egyptian President “understands the anger and anxiety of the Australian people” and this is “the first step in a long process”.
The key word is process: President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi is nicknamed the ‘Quiet General’ because of his “orderly demeanor”.
This may be of little comfort to the men who’ve been languishing in prison since December: appeals can take years.
But the subtext of the talk centred on concern over the breakdown in Egypt-Australian relations.
Since the significant arrival of Egyptians fleeing the Arab nationalist movement in the 40s and 50s, the countries have forged a bond based on travel and trade.
Put simply, the talk of boycotts is starting to bite.
The Consulate’s website has been peppered with protest: “If the Egyptian government persists with this farce, there will be no tourists in Egypt for decades,” writes Edward Leary.
Later this week the Australian Society of Travel Writers will decide whether it will recommend its members suspend tourism coverage of the country.
Still I sit, cup-in-hand, concerned the news cycle will move on from Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed.
In an article about the case entitled, “Wrong sex, wrong class, wrong job”, AMC Media’s Anthony McClellan, says, “Another factor, unfortunately, is the fact that the media and journalists are not particularly held in high regard by the public. If Peter was a doctor saving lives, then the public reaction might be more engaged”.
But countless lives are saved by journalists who expose the truth: this is at the heart of freedom of speech, democracy, and the right to know.
Part of the problem is the limp response from the Australian government.
Consultant on international affairs, Kay Danes OAM, suggests a successful strategy from her years in the field.
“They (the government) should be demanding the Australian Ambassador commence weekly consular access, and himself attend, to show everyone that this case has a priority in the eyes of the Australian Government.”
Peter Greste’s family is considering a legal appeal to Egypt’s Court of Cassation, and an appeal for clemency, or pardon, from President el-Sisi.
The latter has been ruled out, but the former is a possibility, even though some appeals last longer than the sentence.
Comments by the Vice Consul this week give cause for cautious optimism that the appeals process will have a positive outcome.
But that needs to be backed up by boycott, protest, and petition to maintain the pressure.
In the words of Peter Greste’s brother Mike, speaking on ABC Radio’s PM program, “the thing we’d try and encourage people to avoid is directly criticising the legal system. They’re fairly sensitive, they’re extremely protective of their judicial system. As long as it’s constructive correspondence, and it’s not an abusive letter, I think if people feel the need to write that correspondence then it’s to be encouraged”.
Like any teacup diplomacy, there must be a process in which everyone saves face, so the desired outcome – freedom – has the best chance of being achieved.