World

02.06.14

Egypt: Al Jazeera Had ‘Marriott Cell’ Of Terror

Authorities raided the room of an Al Jazeera bureau chief and charged 19 other journalists who worked with or knew him as part of an alleged plot to undermine military rule.

As he introduced the clip on a late-night TV show this week, the presenter’s grin belied the disturbingly bizarre footage which was about to follow.

Shot on a grainy video camera, the clip revealed the moment Egyptian security forces launched a raid that would draw condemnation from across the globe.

After knocking on the door of the room—a  suite inside the Marriott Hotel, the plush five-star complex overlooking the Nile river—the security forces appeared to stride past the startled-looking figure of Mohammed Fahmy, one of the occupants inside.

Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian reporter, had been working as acting bureau chief of Al Jazeera English, spearheading the network’s coverage of Egypt’s ongoing political strife.

Also inside the suite was Peter Greste, an award-winning Australian correspondent who was working for the same network. A third Al Jazeera reporter was also present but did not appear in the video.

To the sound of an absurdly bombastic soundtrack—which, it later emerged had been taken from the Thor movie—the cameraman then began to walk around the room with his colleagues, filming the various possessions of the journalists.

They included laptops, a camera tripod, a studio light and even an Al Jazeera business card.

But the message—rammed home by each orchestral crescendo—appeared clear: these are not simply instruments of innocent journalistic inquiry, but something far more sinister.

After being interrogated on camera, Fahmy and Greste were shown being led into a van outside the hotel. None of the security officers were ever seen during the video—only their voices were heard.

Over month after the late December raid, all three journalists are now facing trial on charges of joining or aiding a terrorist group. They are among a total of 20 reporters linked to Al Jazeera and facing similar accusations. Eight are in custody, the rest are at large. No date for the trial has been set.

Prosecutors said that the 20 journalists used two suites in a Cairo hotel to establish a media center for the Muslim Brotherhood—a group that in December was declared a terrorist organization by the Egyptian authorities.

Those accused included two Britons working for Al Jazeera—Dominic Kane and Sue Turton—and a Dutch reporter, Rena Netjes. She was forced to flee the country yesterday after discovering she was one of the accused. Turton and Kane had already left.

In a statement, prosecutors said that the 20 journalists used two suites in a Cairo hotel to establish a media center for the Muslim Brotherhood—a group that in December was declared a terrorist organization by the Egyptian authorities.

The statement added that the defendants had “manipulated pictures” to create “unreal scenes to give the impression to the outside world that there is a civil war that threatens to bring down the state.” They also allegedly broadcast scenes to aid the Muslim Brotherhood “in achieving its goals and influencing the public opinion.”

The treatment of the reporters has triggered an outcry from activists and rights groups. Al Jazeera has demanded the release of its correspondents, while yesterday the White House said it was deeply concerned about the treatment of journalists in Egypt.

“These figures, regardless of affiliation, should be protected and permitted to do their jobs freely in Egypt,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at a briefing.

“We have strongly urged the government to drop these charges and release those journalists and academics who have been detained,” he said.

And yet some observers have suggested that the Egypt’s military-backed regime—which took power following the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood in a military coup last summer—is past caring what the international community thinks.

The fact that such a video was broadcast, they suggest, presumably with the connivance of leading figures inside the security establishment, means that there are those who will go to any lengths to trumpet the state’s crackdown against its enemies—whatever the diplomatic cost.

Kirsty Hughes, the chief executive of the UK-based Index on Censorship, said there was a “lack of shame” in the Egyptian government’s behavior. “They don’t seem to feel any need to moderate their actions,” she said.

The circumstances behind the Al Jazeera raid have their roots in the events that unfolded during the summer of last year. Back in August, after President Mohamed Morsi had been ousted from power by his own generals following a popular uprising against his rule, the security forces launched a brutally unrelenting crackdown against their enemies.

In the beginning those enemies were perceived to be supporters of Morsi and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group to which he owed his allegiance. Several hundred were killed and thousands more arrested.

The authorities, initially at least, had widespread cross-factional political support. The media, much of it in the hands of regressive establishment figures, eagerly cheered them on.

Only one channel was willing to broadcast in support of the Muslim Brotherhood—Al Jazeera, a network owned by the Qatari royal family. “They were only reflecting one side,” said Rasha Alam, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo. “They were only reflecting the views of people who supported Morsi.”

But given that the Egyptian state—faced as it was with a mounting threat from militants based in the Sinai desert—was busily trying to extinguish the Brotherhood by painting it as a terrorist organization, Al Jazeera’s sympathies came to be seen as tantamount to criminal collusion.

A grubby element of high politics was involved as well. Al Jazeera’s support for the Brotherhood can be traced back to the Qatari royal family and its regional ambitions. In recent years, the oil-rich emirate has been grasping around for greater influence, investing in art, securing the soccer World Cup and draining money into Syrian rebel groups.

Analysts say the pro-Brotherhood line—which was shared by very few of its regional neighbours —was conceived at a time when the Brothers were in the political ascendency. And until last year, while they also held sway in Egypt, the strategy appeared to be working.

“It looked like the gamble was paying off,” said Sultan al-Qassemi, a commentator based in the United Arab Emirates.

But when Morsi was toppled and his followers scattered, the risky game of realpolitik backfired.

The three journalists arrested back in December —dubbed the “Marriot Cell” by the authorities—were working for Al Jazeera English, a highly-respected arm of the parent company which works under different management from the Arabic channels.

Yesterday journalists in Kenya conducted a sit-in outside the Egyptian embassy in Nairobi to protest the arrests—part of a wider online campaign to draw attention to the situation.

But the authorities appear in no mood to listen. A presidential election is approaching in which General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the highly popular army chief, is widely expected to run and win. Tolerance for any form of dissent is low, and non-conformists of all political stripes are ending up in jail.

“They broke the law,” said one official who spoke anonymously to the Associated Press yesterday. “It is a matter for the prosecutors’ office.”