You might be surprised to know that Egypt was considering boycotts against Australia last week. In an obscure Senate committee, the Australian government stated it was now referring to the Palestinian territories as “disputed” rather than “occupied”. After ambassadors from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (including Egypt) exerted diplomatic pressure and threatened trade sanctions, Australia back-tracked and “clarified its position”. As the Australian government responds to the jailing of Peter Greste for seven years for simply doing his job as a journalist, would such pressure work against Egypt?
As an Australian expat living in Cairo for the last eight years, I am sympathetic to how sanctions might affect the lives of Egyptians, especially in the tourism industry. However, I am convinced that the only effective response to this travesty of justice is to implement a program of economic sanctions and a tourism boycott in coordination with the other nations impacted by the Al Jazeera case – the UK, Holland and Canada.
Firstly, Egypt does not respond to diplomatic pressure and does not care about its reputation. No matter how many times in the past year the international community has “condemned”, “expressed grave concern”, or “regretted” abuses of human rights or security crackdowns, the Egyptian government has shrugged and given a wry smile, knowing that these words won’t be backed up by any serious action. Australia has already advocated strongly for Peter Greste with representatives at all levels of the Egyptian government, its regional allies and the USA, all of which achieved precisely zero. Further advocacy at international bodies like the Human Rights Council or the UN Security Council is pointless also. This government will only respond to serious action.
Secondly, the seriousness of the injustice warrants a serious response. While the court decision is subject to appeal and a potential presidential pardon, why should Australia place any trust or confidence in a judicial system that has proven itself to be resolutely unjust? Why should Australia maintain quiet diplomacy when Egypt’s judiciary is openly used as a tool in a proxy war against Al Jazeera and Qatar? An Australian citizen has been convicted and sentenced to seven years jail for reporting on events in Kenya and listening to a Gotye song – the only charges supported by the trial evidence. In the past year, Egypt’s judiciary has delivered vengeance rather than justice. Why should the appeal court be any different? Even if the appeal succeeded, the case is likely to be sent back to the same lower court that convicted him in the first place, albeit with a different, hopefully aviator-free, judge.
Thirdly, Australia’s engagement with Egypt and the region is strong enough to survive a short down-turn in relations. Australia has provided development aid and promoted human rights in Egypt and the wider region for decades. Through the Direct Aid Program and Human Rights Grants Scheme, it has assisted civil society groups and local communities with a range of focused initiatives. Trade relations and family ties with expatriate Egyptians also bond Australia and Egypt. A program of sanctions and boycotts ought to be linked solely to the outcome of this case, so that relations can be restored as soon as a just outcome is achieved. This will also minimize the impact on the lives of Egyptians and show that Australia’s intent is to achieve a just outcome for its citizen, rather than punish the Egyptian people.
Like all Australians, I want to see Egypt recover and become a strong and prosperous nation again. But it can’t be done on a foundation of injustice, nor by treating the citizens of friendly countries like Australia as pawns in a fight we’re not involved in.