With a Grain of Salt

Daily News Egypt
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Absolute Freedom for All

I do not agree at all with those who claim – and they are many – that there is no freedom in Egypt. The truth is that we have never, throughout our seven-thousand-year history known the kind of freedom we now enjoy.

The press, for example, has come to enjoy absolute freedom to slander the highest-ranking officials and insult them however it pleases. It is also free to invent scandals around these officials whenever necessary.

In one newspaper I recently saw a headline that read “Ministers’ sex scandals, pointing to a story in one of its inside pages. I was disappointed in the newspaper after reading the inside page, not because the report did not match up to its headline, but because it didn’t include any pictures – not even graphics of any sort.

Nevertheless, publishing such a headline, even unaccompanied by any story at all – which is often the case with many newspapers – is enough to rub it in the faces of those who doubt the freedom that the press enjoys nowadays.

However, freedom in Egypt is not – as those who doubt it claim – limited only to the press. It extends to political life as well. Any political group (eg the Muslim Brotherhood) can now function as a public political organization, with its own recognized leaders, members, policies and slogans.

The government’s respect for such a group has grown so much that it now acknowledges it by dealing with it on a daily basis in or out of the People’s Assembly, even if it (or its newspapers) have never recognized its name and refer to it simply by its legal description as “the banned group.

This free environment has of course reflected on other aspects. The whole country now enjoys a rare case of absolute freedom. I have traveled almost all around the world, but I have never ever seen anything quite like this. Citizens can now walk in the middle of the street oblivious of the existence of any sidewalks. Landlords can now leave their buildings unpainted, red bricks exposed, without any legal penalties.

In Maadi, where I live, we were all surprised at a neighbor who actually annexed the sidewalk extending his own property and turning it into his own little garden. When the neighbors complained to the district officials, the officials showed utmost respect to the freedom of the resident, who had obviously ironed out the matter with them beforehand – hence they did nothing about it.. A few days later, three other neighbors on the same street practiced their own ‘ironed-out’ rights as well, and followed in their neighbor’s footsteps.

Another resident in the same area went ahead and built a kitchen without a license just below his neighbor’s bedroom. When the wronged neighbor, who was fed up of smelling the fried garlic and listening to the splash of mulukhia every time he entered his bedroom, took the matter to court our deficient legal system did not recognize this newly-found freedom. It ordered the immediate demolition of the kitchen and slapped the perpetrator with a one-year prison sentence.

Strangely enough the verdict was never carried out because – believe it or not – demolition orders can now never be executed without the approval of the police.

The entire society, I say, now enjoys absolute freedom. That includes the government as well, which now feels free to turn a deaf ear to any criticism of its policies whether in the press or in parliament. Ministers don’t even bother to attend the parliament interpellations.

Furthermore, ministers – or at least some of them who belong to the NDP’s Policy Secretariat – can now reject any decision by the prime minister himself or refuse to carry out public government policy if they so choose. Last year, in the prime minister’s office I was witness together with all 30 members of the Board of the Writers’ Union to a decree issued by the prime minister granting financial subsidy to the union towards setting up a much-needed pension fund for Egyptian writers. But the finance minister, who can’t stand the word “subsidy, a dirty word in the IMF dictionary, refuses so far to carry out the prime minister’s decree, thus asserting his undeniable freedom.

For the same way the press, or members of political groups can do what they want, ministers too can now also do what they want – and so does the police.

Where else in the world can you find such absolute freedom?!

Mohamed Salmawyis President of the Writer’s Union of Egypt and editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Hebdo. This article is syndicated in the Arabic press.

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