The State of Freedom of Expression in Egypt

Friday, November 7, 1997

The State of Freedom of Expression in Egypt

(Written by David J. Warr of the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists, November 7, 1997)

Intimidation, threats, legal harassment. These are typical work hazards faced by journalists in Egypt, according to a recent report published by ARTICLE 19 entitled The Egyptian Predicament: Islamists, The State and Censorship. Once a country noted for its relative freedom of expression, Egypt's journalists are currently caught in the middle of a brutal armed and ideological conflict pitting the government against a widespread Islamist movement.

In this bitter contest, freedom of expression is being assailed from both sides. Journalists face the threat of Islamist-inspired prosecutions in the courts and violent, physical attacks by Islamist militants. Conversely, the government headed by Hosni Mubarak, which has been in power for over two decades, last year passed a restrictive press law. The government has been accused of exerting excessive influence on the media.

For the past five years, president Hosni Mubarak's government has faced insurrection from small, but fanatical, armed groups, such as al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya. They have been waging a violent campaign to overthrow the government since 1992. In response, the government's security forces employ "mass arbitrary imprisonment, widespread torture, unfair trial procedures and executions", according to ARTICLE 19.

A free and independent news media is a primary casualty of the conflict between the two sides. The pro-Islamist press has been targeted because of its suspected sympathies for the extremists. The mainstream press is subject to intense pressure if it strays from the ruling party's line. The government strictly regulates all forms of opposition; it reserves for itself the right to sanction competing political parties. Its sensitivity to criticism by the media has increased with the rise of militant Islam- but also parallels the rise of widespread discontent with the economy, unemployment and other social problems.

In the report, ARTICLE 19 states: "The violence of Islamist armed groups reinforces the pro-censorship lobby while allowing the governments to justify silencing political opponents on national security grounds."

Growing state censorship has also been influenced by Islamists allied to the government. In an effort to counter criticism by Islamic fundamentalists that the government is not Islamic enough, the authorities have chosen to elicit the support of "establishment clerics" to bolster its claim of being the true voice of Islam in Egypt. In return for their support, these clerics have been permitted to ban books and censor films, and even to endorse violent attacks on secularist writers, says the ARTICLE 19 report.

The government and their Islamist allies hold sway over freedom of expression in Egypt. The Middle East Times recently reported on an incident of censorship in Egypt. On 18 August, 1997 the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) expressed its concern about the confiscation of the book God of This Time by Sayed Al Qemni. The High State Security Court ordered the book taken off shelves on 17 August, 1997. This decision was allegedly based on a report filed by the government backed Islamic Research Academy of Al Azhar. The report stated the book shows contempt for the prophet Youssef and for the Caliph Othman bin Afaan.

Elsewhere, the editor of the Islamic opposition bi-weekly Al-Shaab, Magdi Hussein, is being tried under Egypt's new libel laws for an article accusing President Hosni Mubarak's son, Alfi, of unscrupulous business dealings. In the 26 October 1997 edition of the Guardian Weekly, Hussein said: "It is an unwritten law that the opposition cannot speak about corruption in the very highest ranks." Last month Prosecutor General Rigaa Arabi banned further media coverage of the case.

Allaa Hamed, a novelist and government tax official, has been sacked and is at present serving a one-year sentence for publication of a book which a court judged immoral because it contains sexually explicit material. He has been branded a permanent danger to his female colleagues. This action followed years of harassment and summary imprisonments without sentence. (Click here to access Action Alerts on this case prepared by the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX).)

Also, the Cairo court of Appeal overturned a lower court ruling on 14 June 1995, which shocked the Egyptian human rights community. It agreed with an Islamist lawyer that the writings of Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid, then professor of Quranic Sciences at Cairo University, showed him to be an apostate and ordered him to divorce his wife, regardless of their wishes. Many in Egypt have seen this court ruling as proof that fundamentalist Islam had seeped into the judiciary . Shortly after the verdict, the armed Islamist group, Gihad, issued a statement supporting the Court of Appeal ruling and asserted that Nasr Abu Zaid should be killed under the auspices of Islamic law. Abu Zaid has since had to give up teaching and has fled Egypt. Meanwhile, the divorce order has since been suspended pending appeal, but the declaration of apostasy remains. (See IFEX Alert of 20 June 1995.)

The government also maintains absolute control over the broadcasting system and allows no privately owned television channels. The government determines who may issue publications, at what price, and the number of copies. Strict laws have been enacted which allow for extreme punishment in cases of defamation and libel. They effectively restrict journalists' ability to pursue their professional activities by encouraging self-censorship.

Said Esoulami of ARTICLE 19 said on 13 August 1997: "The Egyptian government is shooting itself in the foot as it cracks down on the peaceful expression of ideas and allows religious institutions to interfere with and censor cultural expression. Only open debate will provide people with the information and ideas to move the society forward and retain the reputation of Egypt as a centre of cultural excellence." (See IFEX Alert of 15 August 1997.)

Further information:

* For an article in the Middle East Times which offers an Egyptian censor's point of view click here.
* IFEX Internet Service

Sources:

* Middle East Times
* Egyptian Organization for Human Rights
* IFEX Internet Service
* Guardian Weekly, 26 October 1997.