Passport

Sisi Caves to Critics by Releasing Al Jazeera Journalists

Right before the Egyptian leader heads to the U.N., he pardoned 100 prisoners Wednesday.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi  waves as he arrives for the opening ceremony of a new waterway at the Suez Canal on August 6, 2015, in the port city of Ismailiya. Sisi staged a lavish ceremony to unveil a "new" Suez Canal, seeking to boost the country's economy and international standing by expanding the vital waterway.  AFP PHOTO/ KHALED DESOUKI        (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi waves as he arrives for the opening ceremony of a new waterway at the Suez Canal on August 6, 2015, in the port city of Ismailiya. Sisi staged a lavish ceremony to unveil a "new" Suez Canal, seeking to boost the country's economy and international standing by expanding the vital waterway. AFP PHOTO/ KHALED DESOUKI (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Following international outrage at Egypt’s recent crackdown on press freedoms, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Wednesday pardoned Al Jazeera journalists charged with broadcasting news that Cairo viewed as damaging to the government. The two who are still in Egypt were among 100 prisoners who will be released after a presidential pardon, many of whom were activists arrested for violating a 2013 ban on protests without a permit.

Initially convicted in 2014 of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Jazeera English news journalists Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian, Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, and Peter Greste, an Australian, were each sentenced to three years during an August retrial. Greste was deported to Australia in February and was retried in absentia.

Ahmed Abu Zeid, spokesman for Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, announced the pardons on Twitter.

Sisi’s administration faced an international backlash in recent weeks after the Egyptian military mistook a group of picnicking Mexican tourists in the Western Desert for extremists and attacked them, killing 12. Sisi heads to New York on Thursday to address the United Nations General Assembly and will likely face criticism for his military’s deadly mishap — and for failing to live up to promises made at last year’s global meeting in New York. Wednesday’s release was likely an attempt to mitigate that.

In last year’s U.N. speech, Sisi promised a “new Egypt” that would guarantee freedom of opinion and expression. He then returned to Cairo, where he signed into law measures that punish journalists for publishing any stories that do not match up with the official government narrative.

Just last week, his administration banned coverage of the Mexicans’ deaths. His crackdown on press freedom comes amid domestic pressure to beat back extremists operating in Egypt. Hundreds of Egyptian soldiers have been killed by extremists this year, and Sisi’s media ban is intended in large part to protect himself from scrutiny for both the military’s response and his failure to stop the groups.

Human rights watchdogs, including Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, have called on Sisi to reevaluate what they call politically motivated court cases. Under his watch, hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been sentenced to death, and many journalists have been forced to flee the country or face prosecution.

A report released by Amnesty International last year said Egypt had experienced a “catastrophic decline in human rights” since former President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in 2013.

Photo credit: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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