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Al Jazeera Journalist Arrested in Cairo as Egyptian-Qatari Relations Improve

Al Jazeera Journalist Arrested in Cairo as Egyptian-Qatari Relations Improve

Mutual economic interests mean ties will continue to improve despite disputes, analysts say

[Cairo] Egyptian security personnel detained Al Jazeera Mubasher senior producer Rabie ElSheikh at Cairo International Airport last week, a day after the Qatari-government network broadcast live from the Land of the Nile for the first time in eight years.

Al Jazeera Mubasher, sometimes called Al Jazeera Live, is an Arabic-language channel based in Doha, Qatar that broadcasts conferences and other events live without editing or commentary, using subtitles when needed.

ElSheikh, who was with the Egyptian Youm7 newspaper before joining Al Jazeera in 2015, had arrived from Doha for a short vacation with his family when he was taken into custody on August 1.

The Supreme State Security Prosecution ordered his detention for 15 days on charges of “spreading false news.”

He was most likely detained on charges of spreading false news and information in Supreme State Security Case No. 1365 of 2018, a knowledgeable source noted to The Media Line. Several journalists have previously been detained in the case. No official statement has yet been issued by the Interior Ministry or the Public Prosecution regarding ElSheikh’s arrest.

In 2013, Egypt closed Al Jazeera’s local operation after accusing it of being biased in favor of ousted president Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2017, the Egyptian, Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini governments demanded the closure of the entire network as one of their demands made to Doha during the Qatar diplomatic crisis.

On January 5 this year, the AlUla declaration on “solidarity and stability” was signed at a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Saudi Arabia, bringing an end to the isolation of Qatar by several Arab states including Egypt.

On February 4, the Egyptian authorities released Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, who had spent more than four years in pre-trial detention for similar allegations. His release came two weeks after the restoration of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Qatar.

On June 14, Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister, said Cairo and Doha have a common political will to turn the page on the past and explore areas of cooperation. Shoukry’s statement came as he spoke with his Qatari counterpart, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman, in the first visit of an Egyptian foreign minister to Qatar since relations between the countries became strained in 2013.

Mustafa Kamal, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) in Cairo, told The Media Line that Egyptian-Qatari relations have taken three main tracks since the resumption of diplomatic ties.

“Track one is to align on areas of mutual understanding, especially bilateral economic relations and regional coordination in the Palestinian arena, such as the most recent cease-fire between Israel and Hamas,” Kamal said.

“Track two focuses on positive neutrality on the region, specifically maintaining an equidistant position from all conflicting parties in Libya,” he continued.

“The last track covers areas of contention, especially with regards to the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatari-Turkish relations, and calming of tit-for-tat attacks in the media,” Kamal said. “It is clear that there is an agreement through the joint committee on reducing the level of criticism in the media on both sides.”

The opening of Al Jazeera’s office in Egypt is a critical step in the normalization of Qatari-Egyptian relations. Correspondent Shereen Abu Aqleh’s first live broadcast from Cairo is a sign of the warming of relations after the resumption of diplomatic relations.

The Egyptian authorities have already approved reopening of the Cairo office and the staff members have been identified by Al Jazeera management and are awaiting approval, a source from Al Jazeera told The Media Line. A second source confirmed that the plans to reopen the office in Cairo are continuing unhampered.

A government source recently told Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian news website, that the next steps between the two countries may include increasing the number of Egyptian workers in Qatar. He also touched on the possibility of an official visit to Egypt by the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, before the end of this year.

Hussien Bahgat, editor-in-chief of the independent news platform Masr 360 and executive director of the Center for Development, Support and Media, said the detention of journalists on charges of spreading false news is in violation of Article 71 of the Egyptian Constitution of 2014.

Bahgat clarified to The Media Line, “I do not think that imprisoning journalists can benefit the Egyptian government, quite the opposite, especially since it has already gone a long way taking steps to close the pre-trial detention file on charges of broadcasting false news. During the past two months, hundreds of detainees have been released from pre-trial detention, including the journalist and former head of the Constitution Party Khaled Dawoud, journalist Solafa Magdy and activist Esraa Abdel Fattah.”

Hisham Kassem, a democracy activist and a former publisher of the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, told The Media Line, “Egyptian-Qatari relations are improving and the arrest of an Egyptian journalist working for Al Jazeera will not lead to any setback, even if the Al Jazeera network issues a statement to demand his release or condemnation. The opening of communication at the level of heads of state and foreign ministries will not be affected by something like this.

“Most probably he was arrested because he communicated with Egyptian commentators and politicians that the Egyptian administration does not want to appear because it assesses that such an appearance would cause problems,” he continued.

“Under the current repressive situation in Egypt, Rabie ElSheikh may be released next week, or he may remain in prison for four years, because the decision is based on security and political considerations,” Kassem said.

Kamal added, “It is clear that Egypt is the main beneficiary of its reconciliation with Qatar, and the resumption of diplomatic relations will open more direct investment in real estate, tourism, energy and banking. A separation has been drawn between the issues under dispute between the two countries and the promotion of mutual economic interests. The concerns over tracking down individuals wanted by the Egyptian authorities will not affect the return to normalized relations between the two countries.”

Bahgat said, “Despite the complexities of the relationship between Egypt and Qatar, a journalist who adheres to journalistic integrity should not pay the price. Differences between governments are normal. But in this case, it seems that the press, journalists and the truth are paying the price, not only by having to navigate restricted press freedoms but also through unprofessional and misleading news coverage.”

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