Ahmed Mohamed no longer wants to work as a translator for the foreign press in Cairo. The 27-year-old, who asks that his full last name not be used out of fear for his safety, said that as an Egyptian national, he no longer wants to take the chance that he could become the fall guy for a journalist with a foreign passport.
“I have to live in Egypt, I have to make my life here,” Mohamed said. “If [foreign correspondents] want to go to a protest and we get arrested, there is a good chance I could spend years in jail for every day they spend before their embassy or friends get them out,” he said. “I used to work with the British and the Swiss and the Germans. Now I’m looking for a nice local media job that will keep me out of jail.”
Mohamed says the trial, which opened Thursday in Cairo, of three Al Jazeera journalists arrested on Dec 29 and charged with terrorism and false broadcasts, was the final straw.
“I went online to Facebook, and all I saw were pictures of Peter Greste,” Mohamed said, referring to one of the three on trial, who is an Australian national and an award-winning correspondent who now works for Al Jazeera. “He has become the face of this and most of the world forgets about the Egyptians that were arrested with him,” he said. “We all know that the world will step in to save the white man before the Arab.”
As human rights groups and media organizations rally to pressure the Egyptian government to release the imprisoned journalists, among them eight Al Jazeera employees, some have expressed discomfort at the emphasis of some journalists over others. Greste, whose colleagues in Kenya helped spearhead the #FreeAJStaff campaign on Twitter with images of journalists with tape over their mouths, has, for many, become the face of all those imprisoned in Egypt. Greste was arrested alongside his Al Jazeera colleagues Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian national, and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, who are being charged, alongside others, of, “assisting a terrorist organization, broadcasting false news, and working without a permit.”
”Many Egyptian journalists and others have expressed a lot of discomfort at how part of the international outrage vis-a-vis this case is playing out,” said H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institute, and a frequent analyst of Egypt. “Peter Greste is being focused on a lot more than the other Al Jazeera journalists, and Al Jazeera is being focused on a lot more than other networks. This is in spite of the fact most of those on trial have nothing to do with Al Jazeera, and most are non-western, Egyptian journalists…Journalism is not terrorism, regardless of nationality.”
Egypt launched a crackdown on the media last year, with the arrest of journalists they saw as being overly sympathetic to the ousted Muslim Brotherhood movement. The Gulf state of Qatar, which funds Al Jazeera, also backs the Muslim Brotherhood. In whipping up public sentiment, Egyptian state media often accused Al Jazeera of being an extension of Qatar’s pro-Brotherhood policies, and accused the media organization of being a threat to Egypt’s national security. Today, journalists are often harassed and accused of working for Al Jazeera, even though the network no longer has any correspondents in Egypt.
The names of those accused have been slowly leaked in a series of confusing reports. On Jan. 29, the Egyptian prosecutor’s office leaked a statement to local media listing 20 journalists, four of whom were listed as foreign nationals and the rest Egyptians who they said were facing a variety of charges ranging from terrorism to illegal broadcast.
The initial charge sheet contained no names, and immediately, attention focused on the identities of two British citizens, an Australian and a Dutch national.
“Neglecting the other journalists could have severe repercussions,” Dalia Ezzat, a Middle East commentator and Cairo native told BuzzFeed in an email. “Greste could be freed tomorrow and I really hope he does but it’s the local, faceless and nameless journalists that will bear the brunt of this trial and get shafted. Will the western media still be interested then? Their names are out there for anyone interested to do some digging. Talk to their families and make sure there’s equal pressure to release them too. Very few outlets have done this and it’s incredibly disappointing.”
On Thursday, Egyptian prosecutors named the 20 defendants again, but only eight appeared in court. Of those, only three were employees of Al Jazeera. An additional five Al Jazeera journalists, among them Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, are being tried in absentia, having fled the country, as is Dutch journalist Rena Netjes – who was indicted although she does not work for Al Jazeera. Also in court on Thursday were students and Anas Beltagy, the son of senior Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohamed Beltagy, whose connection to Al Jazeera is unclear.
Abdullah al-Shamy, who works for Al Jazeera’s Arabic language channel, has been detained since August, but has still not been charged. He has been on hunger strike for more than a month to protest his imprisonment, yet his name rarely appears among the other journalists being detained.
“If you are defending these journalists’ right to do their job, you have to give them equal attention and not assume that by upping the pressure to release Greste everyone else will be released with him,” Ezzat said.
For Ahmed Mohamed the chance of being yet another faceless Egyptian behind bars is no longer worth risking.
“It’s not like our fellow Egyptians or Arab brothers are advocating for us. When we get locked up, it’s just too easy for them to throw away the key,” he said. “And then I am another Ahmed or Mustafa or Muhammed behind bars.”