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Freedom of expression and the religious state

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Gamal EidIn 2008, while veteran journalist and writer Ibrahim Eissa was receiving the Jibran Twini Lebanese Pioneer Press Award from the World Association of Newspapers in conjunction with the Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar, an American journalist named Marmuq wrote an article in the New York Times saying: “The first thing I do whenever I wake up is think about what I am going to write about George Bush once I get to work. Will I write that he’s an idiot? Will I say that he is an – expletive – ? However now, I ask myself what will be the fate of an Arab journalist who writes similar things about his president or king? Will he have to pay with his life, or simply spend the rest of it in prison?”

This commentary speaks volumes to the type of treatment endured by Eissa while living under the former Mubarak regime, which filed a total of 70 court cases against him for his work while he was editor of Al-Dostour newspaper.

However now that Mubarak is gone, we have found ourselves with a president from the Muslim Brotherhood, which has marked the beginning of religious rule in Egypt. Some try to label what we currently have as civilian rule, or revolutionary rule, and some have gone so far as to say that what we have found ourselves with is a ruler who embodies democracy.

However the ABCs of politics say that religious rule in all its forms will eventually lash out at the country’s social opposition forces that it is not able to control, such as workers, secular citizens and democratic organisations.

Egypt is no exception to this rule, and no sooner did President Morsy assert control over the country did the government start to disregard and ignore hate speech directed towards Copts, in addition to chipping away at the rights of women, previously protected and enshrined in laws passed by former first lady Suzanne Mubarak. A campaign has also begun to censor and arrest artists and journalists, justified by new laws against “insulting the president.”

All this is natural for a president who doesn’t recognise the right of his citizens to criticise or oppose his decisions, whose freedom of expression is limited to supporting and agreeing with everything their leader says. Any criticism of government will therefore be trumped up as criticism of the president himself. Because the president represents the will of God and is responsible for implementing that will, any response to such criticism will not be limited to mere speech, but instead will employ the full extent of the law. All the while, the ruler will insist that he is keen to protect freedom of speech, however only that which is constructive and respects state institutions, without ever clarifying what standard is being used to judge such speech and whether or not it is disrespectful. Those living under religious rule in Egypt have already begun to suffer, as an appeal to religion can already be founds in all the works and speeches of this president, who will increasingly continue to resort to using the country’s judiciary to repress and prosecute those who criticise him.

Religious rulers do not view freedom of speech as a two-way street, where one can freely criticise both the opposition and the government for their practices and mistakes. If one were to choose, the right to criticise the government would probably be considered more important than that of the former, as it is the government’s decisions that affect the state and its people much more than that of the opposition. Regardless as to how sharp or seemingly hostile that criticism may be, it must be tolerated; a lack of criticism in any state is not constructive and does nothing to help it improve from within. As was recently stated by Egypt’s Court of Cassation: “When one assumes power in any government, one must expect that his actions will be subject to intense scrutiny and criticism. In these circumstances, it is important that freedom of speech is preserved as a measurement of a nation’s true level of democracy.”

About the author

Gamal Eid

Gamal Eid

Gamal Eid is a prominent Egyptian human rights lawyer and executive director of the Arabic Network of Human Rights Information (ANHRI)

  • awaad

    we are rapidly sliding into a terrorist state ,not a religious one.

  • Monia Abou Ghali

    Great article! It puts into perspective the concerns many Egyptians are having in regards to the post-Mubarak Muslim Brotherhood government. In my opinion, journalism and the role of journalists has become vital and critical to the system of checks and balances that new democracies are in desperate need of. – Monia Abou Ghali

  • Mareli

    For all the power President Obama wields, people are able to use any language they choose when discussing him. The only thing that seems to be barred is a direct threat to kill him. This is seen to be acceptable under laws protecting freedom of speech in the U.S. A law against “insulting the president” would be unthinkable in the U.S.
    European leaders are also fair game. Is Egypt’s law against insulting the president due to the newness of its democracy, or is it a sign that Western style freedom to criticise an elected leader is not to be part of Egyptian democracy?

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