In an exclusive interview with FRANCE 24 on Thursday, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said he was looking into a presidential pardon for three Al Jazeera journalists jailed since December 2013 on charges of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Speaking to FRANCE 24 in his first-ever interview with a European media outlet, Sisi noted that at the time of the journalists’ arrests, he “did not have the power to take decisions about their situation. If I were president at that time, I would have decided, for the good and the security of Egypt, that the journalists would have to be expelled, so [it would] put an end to this issue once and for all.”
Australian reporter Peter Greste, Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, and Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy – who has joint Egyptian and Canadian citizenship – were arrested on December 29, 2013.
At the time of the arrests, Sisi was commander-in-chief of Egypt’s powerful armed forces, with Egyptian judge Adly Mansour serving as acting president until Sisi’s landslide victory in the May 2014 presidential election.
Five months after he was sworn in, Sisi was pressed by FRANCE 24’s Sonia Dridi and Marc Perelman about whether he intends to issue a presidential pardon for the Al Jazeera journalists. “Let me just say, this issue is currently under discussion so that we may find a solution," said Sisi.
Despite intense international pressure, Sisi has maintained that he could not intervene in the Egyptian judicial process, which he has described as “completely independent”. International human rights groups however have criticised the trial as a “miscarriage of justice”.
Pawns in Egypt-Qatar relations?
The three Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced to multi-year prison sentences ranging from seven to ten years in June 2014 on what critics have described as politicised charges.
The Al Jazeera satellite channel is a Doha-based international news organisation funded by the Qatari royal family. Following the Egyptian military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the ouster of democratically elected Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi, relations between Egypt and Qatar have soured.
Qatar was one of the largest funders of Morsi’s government and Egypt – supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – have accused Doha of backing the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that is seen as a threat to the Saudi and Emirati monarchies.
Tensions hit a low earlier this year when Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their envoys from Qatar in protest at its "interference" in their internal affairs by supporting Islamists.
But there have been attempts in recent weeks to heal the rift between Sunni Muslim-dominated Arab nations as the region faces an extraordinary radicalisation threat, with thousands of young men from Arab nations joining the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq.
‘Something going on’ between Egypt and Qatar
On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah urged "Egypt, the people and leadership, to seek with us the success of this (reconciliation) move as part of Arab solidarity."
Responding to his call, Egypt issued a communiqué hailing “a new era” in Arab solidarity that “turns the page on the disputes of the past”.
Speaking from Cairo hours after the interview, FRANCE 24’s Perelman noted that there was “clearly something going on right now behind the scenes between Egypt and Qatar.”
Noting the recent Saudi call to mend fences within the Arab world, Perelman noted that the fates of the journalists were intertwined with the acrimonious diplomatic divides within the Arab world. “This story that’s been going on for nearly a year with our journalistic colleagues at Al Jazeera is a political dispute,” said Perelman. “When we asked him [Sisi] are you ready to pardon them, he said this was under review. His body language seemed to indicate that this was clearly part of the negotiations going on between Egypt and Qatar that involved these three journalists, but it also involves diplomatic concerns.”
Calling for international support to Libya
In his interview with FRANCE 24, Sisi also highlighted his security concerns for Egypt’s western border with Libya and called on the international community to help the Libyan army in its fight against Islamist militants.
Drawing parallels with the international coalition against IS (also known is ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq, Sisi noted that, “We will need the same measures happening in Iraq and Syria to be taken in Libya.”
More than three years after an uprising ousted Muammar Gaddafi, Libya currently has two rival governments and several militia groups that have not yet been disarmed.
Sisi however categorically denied reports that Egypt was intervening in neighbouring Libya. "If we intervened directly, I would not hesitate to announce that,” said Sisi. “But all we have done so far is to help the Libyan national army, the Libyan parliament, and the Libyan government."