Freedom of expression is the life force of any democracy especially in political debates and public-interest issues. It is supposed to be the means by which the best solutions are reached. This is why there is a parliament, media, and public debate seminars.
In developed democratic societies people are accustomed to freedom of speech and expression. They know the rules, for there is no freedom without limits and rules to govern it. The line is quite thin between freedom of speech or slander and incitement of hate. In many cases, long-practicing democracies still struggle with this line, and they often resort to courtrooms to settle such matters.
In Egypt, however, it is different. We are not accustomed to freedoms of speech, or any other type for that matter. Decades long oppression has instilled fear in us, and it has become ingrained in our minds that we should shut up. In schools, we can’t argue with teachers, nor does the education system encourage research or argument. At home, the head of the house-hold (usually the father) sets the rules and they are unquestionable. In mosques and churches we are not allowed to question or debate beyond what we are told. In politics, we are thrown in jails if we dare speak.
Now, all of a sudden, the door seems wide open, and everyone is blabbering their life away. It is very dangerous, much like giving a gallon of water to a man who is dying of thirst. In Egypt, no one knows the rules. No one has limits, except for a handful of people. There is no background information, or data, or even some court rulings to refer back to if matters escalate that far. And the ruling entities in this country tend to abuse such ignorance.
Those who peacefully protest are detained for chanting “Down with Military Rule”. Graffiti artists are jailed for painting the faces of the revolution martyrs on the walls of Cairo. Activists demonstrating for the freedom of civilians jailed in military prisons are taken to be thrown in the same cells. Writers are taken for questioning by the military prosecutor for supporting the revolution and demanding justice. Democracy youth activists are sentenced to years in prison for handing out leaflets; it is like Abdel Nasser’s suppression era all over again. News channels are being shut down, NGOs workers are facing trials, and the crackdown on journalists is unprecedented. In fact Egypt’s freedom of expression climate has worsened since the ouster of Mubarak, as reported by the February 2012 Human Rights Watch report.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the body responsible for interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and to which Egypt is a signatory, states that “States parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions such as the army or the administration.” Egypt has also recorded a steep decline in its ranking in the press freedom index by Reporters without Borders. The Human Rights Watch Report is quite disturbing.
Had SCAF silenced everyone, it might have been a struggle to make them understand what freedom of speech and expression mean. But this is not the case. They choose who to persecute, who to oppress and silence.
One need only watch television talk shows to understand what incitement of hate means, or what slander and libel are. Those who falsely reported that Copts were killing army soldiers at Maspiro and called for the “peoples’ help” on state TV, resulting in the deaths of tens of Egyptians, were neither questioned nor detained. Those who shot accusations of prostitution at Egyptian women who were violated by army soldiers are free to walk the Earth and speak whenever and wherever they please. Those who threw false allegation at respectable public figures claiming they are spies and agents of the US are at large. Those who filed lawsuits claiming to have seen popular activists in acts of violence, while these activists were, in reality, out of Egypt altogether, are still filing lawsuits of the same type.
In fact, those who call for criminalising protests are members of a “democratically elected” parliament. A ridiculous situation!
How much longer will Egypt be plagued by double standards? Our two ruling entities: the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood are tainted with injustice when it comes to freedom of expression. The Muslim Brothers who are, as we speak, staging sit-ins in Tahrir are the same people who were on the verge of approving the law criminalising protests. The SCAF, which detained three activists just a few days ago for calling for the freedom of detainees, is not applying the same measures on TV presenters who are clearly inciting hate. How are we to reach democracy under such dire circumstances?
There is yet a long way to go for Egypt to free itself from the chains of oppression but the hope is there so long as we keep on struggling. The revolution for freedom and justice continues despite the strength of its opposition.