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Sisi will further limit civil liberties in Egypt

When three Al-Jazeera English journalists were jailed in Egypt, it made international headlines. Australian journalist Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed were convicted in June of aiding the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood and of spreading false news that portrayed Egypt as being in a state of civil war.

The evidence against them included footage of a horse trotting, a documentary on Somalia, and a music video by the singer Gotye. Despite the flimsy trial, Greste and Fahmy received seven-year jail terms, while Mohamed was jailed for 10 years. International criticism and backdoor pressure from foreign governments was not enough to persuade President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi to intervene and free the journalists.

On Wednesday November 13, Al-Sisi issued a decree allowing the deportation of foreigners accused of crimes on Egyptian soil. It states that at the request of government prosecutors, and with the approval of cabinet, the president "may agree to deliver the defendants and transfer the sentenced to their own countries, either for their trial or the execution of their sentence".

The announcement has fuelled hope that this could mean that Greste – an Australian citizen – could be released. The president had previously said that he did not have the legal jurisdiction to intervene in Greste's case before the legal proceedings were finished – a process that could take months because of retrials and appeals. This decree removes that delay. It is unclear whether the decree would apply to Fahmy, who is a dual citizen of Egypt and Canada. It would not apply to Mohamed, who is Egyptian. There is also a question mark over Egyptian-American prisoner Mohamed Soltan, a Muslim Brotherhood activist who is on hunger strike in jail.

This question of passports and citizenship points to the wider issue of how such cases are discussed. The plight of Greste and other foreigners in jail in Egypt is horrendous and the international media attention attracted by the case has shone a valuable light on the deteriorating state of civil liberties in Egypt. However, the fact remains that – even if Greste is freed as he should be, having committed no crime – hundreds of unjustly jailed Egyptians will continue to languish in jail and political dissent in the country will continue to be crushed.

On Sunday, Egypt sentenced 23 activists to three years in jail for protesting against a law that outlawed protests. These are the same protests that ousted Dictator Hosni Mubarak in the 2011 revolution, and Mohamed Morsi in 2103, before the current military-led regime took over. They join scores of other activists already in jail. Political dissent from both secular and Islamist camps has been brutally repressed. It is unsurprising that rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) have said that things in Egypt are returning to their pre-revolutionary state.

At the end of October, a group of 23 Egyptian newspaper editors pledged to limit their criticism of state institutions. This followed an attack on the restive Sinai Peninsula. In a statement, the editors condemned the attack and pledged to confront the "hostile culture towards the national project and the foundations of the Egyptian state". It was a worrying step that further shut down avenues for discussion or dissent; but the statement merely formalised an existing policy among private newspaper owners to echo the state line. The same month, a satellite network replaced Mahmoud Saad, a talk-show host mildly critical of the government, saying that "freedom of expression cannot ever justify ridicule of the Egyptian army's morale". Other television programmes and channels that presented opposing views have gone off air.

Al-Sisi has repeatedly spoken of "foreign plots" and big conspiracies in Egypt, raising the possibility that any critic could be accused of complicity. Wide-reaching counter-terrorism laws introduced earlier this year have also been used to crush dissenting voices.

In April, when the counter-terrorism bill was passed, Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights, warned that the law "signals a reversal of the hard-earned freedoms gained after the January 2011 uprising and will take the country back to its pre-January 25 revolutionary state." These words were echoed in October by Sarah Leah Whitson of HRW, when she said: "It's back to business as usual in Egypt. The Sisi government will clearly go to any length to crush domestic opposition, whether secular or Islamist."

Regardless of the new presidential decree, and whether Greste and Fahmy are freed (something which is by no means guaranteed), this dire situation for civil liberties in Egypt looks set to continue unabated.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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