Dispatch

Why Egypt Hates Al Jazeera

The network's Cairo-based staff, who stand accused of running a terror cell from a luxury hotel, find themselves caught in the middle of a regional power struggle.

CAIRO — Last summer, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy was one of thousands of protesters who took to Tahrir Square to give Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian army chief, a mandate to "confront terrorism" -- the Egyptian government's euphemism for cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood. Tomorrow, he will appear in court on the receiving end of that mandate: He stands accused of running a terrorist cell from a luxury hotel in Cairo.

Fahmy, who was hired in September as Al Jazeera English's bureau chief here, is one of three journalists from the channel who have spent nearly seven weeks behind bars. They were arrested in late December and have since disappeared into Cairo's Tora Prison, held alongside Muslim Brotherhood leaders and jihadists. After more than a month in detention, they were finally charged in late January with everything from broadcasting false news to terrorism, and their first court hearing will be held on Feb. 20.

Foreign journalists here describe the arrests and trumped-up charges as a warning shot to the entire press corps, the most egregious signs of a press crackdown that has seen dozens of journalists detained or attacked.

But it is no coincidence that the charges are directed at a network that Egyptian security officials often describe as the media wing of an enemy state. The Qatar-owned Al Jazeera has continued to give airtime to Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist leaders, emerging as the only high-profile outlet for their members since the Egyptian government's brutal crackdown last summer.

The Egyptian government's level of hostility wasn't quite clear to Al Jazeera management on the night of Dec. 29, when police knocked on the door of room 2056 at the Marriott hotel in Cairo's upscale Zamalek neighborhood. Peter Greste, the channel's East Africa correspondent, was in the hotel with Fahmy; he'd been in Egypt for 10 days, covering over the Christmas holiday. Baher Mohamed, a producer, was arrested from his home shortly after the hotel raid.

Two journalists from the Arabic channel had been jailed since the summer: Abdullah al-Shami was detained in August, and is now three weeks into a hunger strike; Mohamed Badr was picked up in July, held for six months, then finally acquitted and released last week.

The English channel had been treated differently, however. One of its crews was arrested in Suez in July, another in Cairo the following month; both were freed after a few days in detention.

"Honestly, when we first heard, we thought they'd all be released in the morning," said Heather Allan, the head of newsgathering at Al Jazeera English. "We were operating quite openly in the Marriott ... we thought it would blow over, they'd get a smack on the wrists and a march to the airport."

However, Al Jazeera Arabic's sympathetic coverage of Islamist leaders appears to have contributed to the decision to expand the crackdown to the channel's English-language affiliate.

"One of the things that leads to all of this is that Qatar is hosting, supporting, providing a place of refuge for Brotherhood leaders," said Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation. "They're hosting them, and providing a platform, through Al Jazeera."

Those leaders include Essam Abdel Magid, a member of the hardline Gema'a al-Islamiyya wanted on charges of incitement to murder. The Egyptian government asked Interpol to help arrest Abdel Magid, who previously served 25 years in prison for his role in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat.

Yet he popped up in Doha on Dec. 1, in an interview with Al Jazeera's Arabic channel, in which he accused the army of siding with "religious minorities," an ugly reference to Egypt's Coptic Christian population.

Other Islamist leaders supportive of deposed President Mohammed Morsi, including Muslim Brotherhood leader Gamal Heshmat, have appeared in recent weeks on both the Arabic channel and its Egypt affiliate, Mubasher Misr. The channel routinely gives airtime to guests with sharply sectarian and reactionary views, which often go unchallenged. The Washington Post reported in November that the network has also paid to host several exiled Egyptian Islamist leaders in hotels in Doha.

None of this makes it onto Al Jazeera English. The two channels are entirely separate: different management, different editorial lines, even physically separate buildings in Doha. "We plow our own furrow, and what we do on AJE we're proud of. It's accurate, balanced, fair," said Sue Turton, a Doha-based correspondent and presenter for Al Jazeera English also charged by Egyptian prosecutors. "We are a different channel."

If Egyptian authorities had wanted to arrest Al Jazeera English's team at an earlier date, it would have been easy to find them. It was no secret that the channel had been using the Marriott suite as a studio since authorities raided their offices in August. The Marriott, after all, is a state-owned property in a country where hotels share guest lists with police.

Nevertheless, Egyptian security officials and pro-government media have portrayed their discovery of what they call the "Marriott terror cell" as a major intelligence coup. A private television channel, Tahrir TV, last week aired a 20-minute video of the arrests, set to dramatic music from the soundtrack of Thor: The Dark World. An unseen cameraman pans across computers, microphones, and other bits of mundane equipment. Officers question Fahmy in Arabic, asking him about the names of his cameramen and his salary arrangements with the channel.

Allan, meanwhile, has made several visits to Cairo since the arrests, mostly to meet with the lawyers and embassy officials working on the case. Greste is Australian and Fahmy holds Canadian citizenship; representatives from both embassies have met with them and with the network. Allan also met with representatives from the U.S. embassy, "just for a background briefing," she said.

On her first visit, Allan also met with officials from the State Information Service (SIS), who criticized the channel's employees for working without credentials. Greste, like several correspondents before him, was not accredited. "But our Egyptian staff are accredited, and were until the end of the year," Allan said.

Obtaining those credentials has become increasingly difficult for every foreign correspondent in Cairo -- not just Al Jazeera staffers. The press center last year started requiring journalists to submit letters from the Egyptian embassy in the country which the news organization is based as a prerequisite for receiving press cards. And earlier this month, the SIS informed journalists that it will not issue permanent press cards for 2014 until March at the earliest, forcing them to apply for flimsy-looking temporary cards every few weeks or to use expired ones.

All three of Al Jazeera English's journalists were transferred in early January to Tora prison. Fahmy and Mohamed were jailed in the notorious maximum-security "Scorpion" wing, sharing a cell block with Mohamed al-Zawahiri, the brother of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

They were kept in solitary confinement without a bed or even a blanket, forced to sleep on the floor in an insect-infested cell. Fahmy's relatives say he didn't see the sun for weeks, nor did he receive medical treatment for a dislocated shoulder, which he suffered shortly before his arrest.

"He looked totally different. It wasn't him at all," a family member said after visiting him last weekend. "And it got worse. After the 25th of January, he was prevented from having food from his family, they didn't allow him to change his clothes ... they all wear white, but it was very dirty. They even shaved his head. And all this happened before they had any charges against them."

Charges finally surfaced in a prosecution statement leaked to local media on Jan. 29. It accused 20 journalists, many of whom had no connection to Al Jazeera, of broadcasting false information to "convince the international community that Egypt was undergoing a civil war." The 16 Egyptian defendants were also charged with "belonging to a terrorist organization," the Muslim Brotherhood, while four foreigners were accused of aiding the group.

The initial charge sheet contained no names, only nationalities: The foreigners were listed as two British citizens, an Australian, and a Dutch woman.

The document prompted fears among the small circle of Dutch correspondents in Cairo. "At first I thought it was me on that list, because I've written for Al Jazeera English," said Brenda Stoter, a Dutch journalist who often reports from Cairo.

Her friend Rena Netjes, a correspondent for several Dutch media outlets, asked the embassy to follow up on the reports. "And the next afternoon, I got an email: 'Can you come to the embassy?' ... I got the scare of my life," Netjes said. "I thought at any moment the police would come through the door. There was a chance I could end up in Tora that night."

As Netjes drove to the Dutch embassy from her home in eastern Cairo, she saw journalists starting to tweet the names of the accused. "I saw on people writing 'Johanna Ideniette,' and I knew it was me. I thought, I have to make it to the embassy," she said. (Johanna is her baptismal name; Ideniette appears to be a misspelling of the Dutch word for "identity.")

Netjes believes she was targeted because she met with Fahmy at the Marriott on Dec. 14, to talk about the insurgency in the Sinai. Hotel security took a copy of her passport, which could have led prosecutors to her. Following her visit to the Dutch embassy, she spent the next few nights moving from apartment to apartment, until the embassy finally secured permission for her to leave Egypt on Feb. 3.

Also on the list was "Susan Melanie," which turned out to be Sue Turton. She made two reporting trips to Cairo between September and early November. "I was in Ukraine covering the demonstrations there when the general prosecutor started leaking the list," she said. "There was some confusion, but when I saw the list myself, it had my first two names. I instantly knew it was me, and the bosses pulled me back to Doha."

In a statement released on Feb. 5, Al Jazeera said that nine of its employees were among the 20 people charged. "I was sitting in the anchor chair, and read out that myself and these other people had been charged. It was a bit of a surreal moment," Turton said.

The network is not sure whether Egypt has asked other regional countries, perhaps even Interpol, to apprehend the "fugitives." So Turton is being careful about where they travel, avoiding Gulf countries that supported Morsi's overthrow, for example.

Another person named in the charge sheet is Anas Mohamed el-Beltagy, the son of jailed Muslim Brotherhood official Mohamed Beltagy. Ragia Omran, a lawyer working on the case, said it was unclear why he was included. Beltagy was arrested on Dec. 31, two days after the Al Jazeera team, and was accused of inciting riots on university campuses.

The recent arrests have undeniably had a chilling effect on the press. They are also part of a broader crackdown: More than 80 journalists have been arbitrarily detained in recent months, according to local and international rights groups. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in its annual report that Egypt was the third-deadliest country for reporters in 2013, and the country ranked 159th on Reporters Without Borders's annual press freedom index, a notch below Pakistan.

But it's Al Jazeera that has borne the brunt of this hostility -- and not just from the government. On Jan. 25, two newspaper reporters were attacked by an angry mob in Tahrir Square that inexplicably decided they were Al Jazeera employees. Later that day, a police officer warned a cameraman from the MBC satellite channel to stop filming a pro-Morsi protest. Otherwise, he threatened to tell local residents that the crew worked for Al Jazeera, then watch as they were attacked.

If Turton and Allan blame their Arabic counterparts for this intense hostility, they won't say so directly. But they do not exactly defend their sister channel, either. "I can talk for us, as far as we're concerned, we stand by our reporting ... from across the road, it's their editorial line," Allan said.

For many Egyptians, however, and certainly for the government, that distinction no longer seems relevant. "We had a slight fear when he told us he was going to work there, because of the situation in Egypt," said Adel Fahmy, Mohamed's brother. "[Al Jazeera English] is totally different, and should be perceived in a different way, but unfortunately it's not ... so we had a slight fear, but we never thought it would actually happen."

Fahmy and Mohamed were moved last week into the same cell as Greste in Mulhaq al-Mazra, a lower-security annex of Tora.

Turton will be tried in absentia at the Feb. 20 hearing, and plans to submit affidavits in her defense. Allan plans to attend the trial, though Egypt has now started requiring visitors from Doha to obtain visas in advance.

Fahmy hopes to defend himself, a family member said, though he isn't sure if the court will allow it. "He told me the prosecutors confronted him about having Muslim Brotherhood contacts in his phone. It's ridiculous," said the relative, who asked to remain anonymous.

Ironically, Fahmy even joined two big anti-Brotherhood demonstrations last year -- as a protester, not a journalist. Family members say he went to Tahrir Square on June 30, the first day of huge anti-Morsi protests that preceded his ouster. And he went again on July 26, to give Sisi the "mandate" that has now been turned against Fahmy and his colleagues.

"He was very happy ... he was so proud to see the Egyptian people happy. It breaks my heart to see this happen," the relative said.

SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Head in the Sand

How long can Venezuela's president pretend not to see the economic ruin his policies have created?

LA VICTORIA, Venezuela — Old campaign posters for Venezuela's late president Hugo Chávez still flutter above the state-owned Mercal grocery store that Roberto Briceno runs in a working-class neighborhood in this industrial city of 150,000.

Briceno says he should post another sign: "Closed."

He hasn't opened the store, which sells cooking oil, powdered milk, chicken, and other basic foodstuffs at deeply subsidized prices, for more than 10 days.

"I have nothing to sell," he said in February. "I have been calling the Mercal warehouse everyday and they say they have nothing. I don't know what they expect us to eat."

Briceno isn't alone. Many storeowners throughout Venezuela are facing the same predicament, thanks to uncertainties about the country's new foreign-exchange policies.

In January 2014, Venezuela revamped its currency system -- one historically riddled with corruption and an overvalued bolivar that only stoked a raging black market. The official exchange rate is now 6.3 bolivars to the dollar for food, medicines, and goods that the government deems priorities. But the government has transferred other foreign-exchange transactions, like travel and remittances, to the Sicad exchange rate -- Venezuela's other rate in its currency-control system -- to 11.7 bolivars to the dollar. The black market rate is now 84 bolivars to the dollar.

The government has dramatically reduced access to dollars to protect its dwindling international reserves. Consequently, some retailers, like Briceno, don't have any inventories at all, while others are finding it difficult to import goods. Meanwhile, exasperated consumers grouse about the lack of products, while spending hours each day, trudging from store to store. And to make matters worse for storeowners, President Nicolas Maduro has made retailers lower prices or face expropriation -- a move he put in place in November 2013.

Maduro asserts that the country's new exchange system will go a long way to alleviate shortages of food, toilet paper, medicines, and other daily necessities. Critics, however, argue that by transferring many transactions to the Sicad rate in Venezuela's dual-rate system, this is nothing but disguised devaluation and it will only spur inflation.

Since Maduro's announcement in January, thousands of students have taken to the streets throughout the country to protest against the deteriorating economic situation and the government's economic policies. On Feb. 12, violent clashes between the president's supporters and opponents left three dead. Violent protests have continued.

The country's current foreign-exchange woes started in the 1980s, but were cemented when the late President Hugo Chávez took office in 1999. The system that he put into place laid the groundwork for what remains today. Facing a nationwide strike in 2002 and 2003 that led to capital flight, Chávez implemented rigid foreign-exchange controls to brake the outflow of dollars. The government limited access to dollars, and fixed the bolivar's exchange rate to the greenback. In doing so, Chávez played into a system beset by corruption and a burgeoning black market.

Maduro, who promised not to devalue the currency during the 2013 elections, has blamed the country's "parasitical bourgeoisie," who, he says, is waging an economic war against his government by withholding inventories and inflating prices to boost shortages and damage his presidency. To combat those actions, Maduro has tightened up access to dollars by creating the National Foreign Trade Center, a new agency that will supervise imports, and has decreed a new law that limits companies' profit margins to 30 percent. And in a show of good, old-fashioned Bolivarian populism, he also raised the country's minimum wage by 10 percent in January 2014.

"The question is do we give dollars to speculators, or do we bring in medicine," said Rafael Ramirez, the vice president for economic affairs, oil minister, and president of the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela SA. "Do we give dollars to travelers or do we bring in food?" The health and needs of Venezuelans, he said, take precedence over all else.

Many overseas suppliers, who are owed upward of $14 billion by Venezuelan companies, are reluctant to extend more credit. Given that Venezuela imports about 70 percent of the products it consumes, any curtailment is a serious threat to the country's wellbeing. Food shortages -- a chronic problem for the past two years -- are worsening.

"I have to go to central Caracas now to find food, as there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in my neighborhood,'' said Letitia Suarez, who lives in one of the slums surrounding the Venezuelan capital, in early February. "And when I go to Caracas it's a constant battle to find food. I spend hours standing in line, and fights always break out." Getting to the city center isn't an enjoyable trip: Her bus line is rampant with thieves. Crime has increased with the economic crisis, and the city now has the third highest murder rate in the world.

But it's not only local merchants and the public that are feeling the bite. Company officials have also said they may have no choice but to curtail operations until dollars become available.

Empresas Polar, the country's largest privately owned food processor, warned on Jan. 22 that it may have to reduce operations and production because a lack of foreign exchange has crimped its ability to import raw materials. The company announced that it owes $463 million to overseas suppliers, who refuse to send more goods until they are paid. "Our credit lines are exhausted, and they won't send us orders until we can cancel our debts."

Most international airlines -- such as American, Air Europa, and Air Canada -- have also stopped selling tickets to Venezuelans in local currency, arguing that they are owed millions of dollars by the government's foreign-exchange agency, which has accepted the airlines' bolivars but has not given them dollars in return. One airline -- Ecuador's Tame --suspended flights to Venezuela altogether.

The foreign exchange agency now owes the air industry up to $3.6 billion, according to the country's airline association. But even in the best possible scenario, the airlines won't be able to recoup the currency's true value; thus, they want to be paid in the bolivar exchange rate in place at the time of ticket sales. Airlines are hoping that they will force the government's hand by refusing to sell tickets for bolivars, but the government has so far balked, offering to repay airlines in jet fuel and bonds. The airlines, of course, want cash.  

Judging from his actions, it doesn't appear that Maduro sees the trouble this has caused. On Jan. 22, the president tweeted that the new system will help the government "defeat definitely and structurally the economic war," while increasing "the efficiency in administering these dollars."

The new measures -- which had been delayed for five months while the government sought to avoid unpopular actions before December's regional elections -- may make foreign-exchange regulations clearer and end some abuses of the system, but don't go far enough to fix the country's financial disaster, analysts say. The likely outcome will be higher inflation and more shortages, especially in areas -- such as automotive parts, retail clothing and shoes, and home appliances -- not considered a priority by the government.

"It is really too little to stabilize the forex market,'' said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. "The bolivar is still seriously overvalued, and demand will still far outstrip supply. Furthermore, the Sicad mechanism is opaque and ripe for favoritism."

Following the announcement on Jan. 22, the black market rate soared more than 10 percent to 75 bolivars to the dollar, or more than 12 times the official exchange rate.

"The official exchange rate of 6.3 to the dollar is unsustainable," said Alejandro Grisanti, an economist at Barclay's in New York, adding that a fair exchange rate is closer to 13 bolivars to the dollar. "But so is the black market rate."

Concerns about Venezuela's economy led both Standard and Poor's, and Moody's Investors Service to downgrade Venezuela's debt in December 2013. Moody's warned that the country's unsustainable macroeconomic imbalances, as government policies, mean that "the risk of an economic and financial collapse has greatly increased."

Maduro, however, seems content to bury his head in the sand. So far, he's been summarily unwilling to reverse any of Chávez's economic policies. Maduro sent his finance minister, the pragmatic Nelson Merentes, back to the central bank in a cabinet reshuffle in February, strengthening the hand of Planning Minister Jorge Giordani, who many see as a Marxist.

"The hard-liners had their positions strengthened in the reshuffle," said César Aristimuño, an economist with Caracas-based Banca y Negocios. For Aristimuño, the government's chief challenge isn't the exchange rate, but the lack of hard currency. A drop in oil prices has reduced the amount of dollars that Venezuela receives for its oil. Such sales make up 95 percent of the dollars the government receives, and the average price of the Venezuelan market basket of oil products fell 3.4 percent in 2013 compared with 2012. The fear is that they will fall even further. The international oil companies that should be investing aren't, he said, adding that an increase in the price of crude would ease the government's stress.

But not everyone is carping about Maduro's policies. The president's decision to order stores to cut prices or face military expropriation late last year created opportunities for the wealthy, as they prepared for what they knew was the inevitable.  

Eduardo Morales and his family bought two refrigerators, one stove, five air conditioners, two plasma-screen televisions, and a handful of microwave ovens and assorted smaller appliances days after Maduro ordered stores to lower prices. This mad rush depleted inventories within a few short days.

"I'm sitting pretty," said Morales, a 42-year-old electrician. "You can't find these appliances anymore, and I have them. And who knows when they will reappear and at what price? They're like money in the bank. When I need money, I'll sell one."

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images