A slow reform to free expression in Egypt

Egyptians chant a slogan against the government and military rulers after Friday prayers in Tahrir square in Cairo September 9, 2011. Thousands of Egyptian activists returned to the Square on Friday for a day of protests demanding a clear road map to democracy and an end to military trials for civilians. Photo Credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany
Thursday, October 6, 2011

On February 11, 2011, following weeks of protests and demonstrations by millions of Egyptians who took to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and other cities, Hosni Mubarak resigned as President of Egypt. The world was stunned as almost 30 years of authoritarian rule came to an end. An economic and cultural powerhouse in the region, the developments in Egypt demonstrated to the rest of the world that the revolution in Tunisia a few weeks earlier was not an isolated incident. Rather, it was the beginning of a widespread movement across the region that would become known as the Arab Spring.

The days immediately following Mubarak’s resignation were filled with hope and optimism for a renewed and democratic Egypt. As quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the military rulers who took over in the wake of Mubarak’s departure promised to ensure "a peaceful transition of power in the framework of a free and democratic system,” and to “rule the country to build a free democratic state.” The new constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt was to include protections for free speech and press freedoms, allowing Egyptian civilians to finally speak freely after decades of being silenced. However, the celebrations following Mubarak’s ouster quickly ended as the army returned to violent tactics to disperse the protestors. Now nearly eight months after Mubarak’s resignation, it appears as though little has changed. Egyptians have returned to Tahrir Square and the streets, protesting against the transitional government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

According to Egypt’s free expression and human rights groups, including those who make up the National Coalition for Media Freedom (NCMF), the SCAF is employing many of the tactics associated with Mubarak’s regime. On September 15, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf announced that the transitional government would be extending the hated emergency law that had already been in effect for 30 years until June 2012, despite earlier promises that it would expire at the end of the month. The law’s repeal had been one of the main demands of protesters just months earlier. It allows individuals to be detained without charge or trial for up to 45 days, and suspects are tried in State Security Emergency Courts with no right to appeal. In addition, the law now makes “provoking ‘internal instability,’ criticizing the military and the government, and […] spreading ‘false or misleading information’ in the media,” a prosecutable offense. "It is not enough to replace old faces and perhaps change some policies, to reach an independent media that ensures the right of citizens to communication," adds the NCMF. In a declaration on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, NCMF called on the authorities to put a "stop immediately to the state of emergency that was directly responsible for rooting tyranny and violation of public and private freedoms, and specifically the freedom of opinion, expression, press and media."

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) reports that as of October peaceful demonstrations continue to be broken up violently by the military police and military officers, followed by the arbitrary detention of demonstrators. "These repressive actions contradict the goals of the revolution. The Military Council has to stop these policies which restrict the freedoms of opinion and expression, as well as the right to peaceful demonstrations. Torture and oppression under the previous regime were the most important reasons for the outbreak of the revolution. The continuation of these practices by the powers that be threatens the future of the Egyptian people and their revolution," commented ANHRI.

Other recent developments are equally worrisome. Detained 26-year old Egyptian blogger Mikael Nabil Sanad was arrested on March 28, 2011, following his criticisms of the army’s involvement in the ongoing protest movement. On April 10, Sanad was found guilty of “insulting the military” and “spreading false information.” He was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison by the military court, despite being a civilian. His lawyers were not present when the verdict was issued, having been falsely informed by the chief of the military courts that the trial had been postponed to later that week. Since then, Sanad has been kept in solitary confinement and his requests for appeal have been met with continuous delays and inaction. On August 22, Sanad began a hunger strike in protest against his imprisonment and mistreatment at the hands of the prison guards. His health has been rapidly deteriorating and his family members and friends now fear for his life. Even more troubling is the fact that Sanad’s case is not an isolated one. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reports that nearly 12,000 Egyptian civilians, many of them journalists and bloggers, have been tried in military courts since the start of the revolution, in direct contravention of international legal standards; more than Mubarak ever managed during his 30-year rule.

In addition to the mass arrests, the SCAF has undertaken measures that have had a negative impact on media outlets in Egypt. On September 7, 2011, information minister Osama Heikal put a temporary freeze on the issuance of new satellite TV licenses and gave no indication of how long it would last. His ministry has also threatened other TV networks, vowing to “take legal measures against satellite TV stations that jeopardize stability and security.” Twice in September, SCAF security forces raided the office of Al-Jazeera Mubashar Egypt, Al-Jazeera’s affiliate in Egypt. SCAF justified the raids on the grounds that Al-Jazeera Mubasher Egypt was not properly licensed, despite the fact that the station had submitted a request for license renewal several months earlier. More recently, on September 25, copies of Sawt Al-Ummah newspaper were confiscated by authorities with no explanation as to why they were seized. These actions all point to an emerging reality where the repressive tactics used against news media during Mubarak’s rule remain in effect.

The optimism that followed Mubarak’s departure has been overshadowed by these developments. Although the significance of Mubarak’s ousting should not be downplayed, much still stands between the Egyptian people and the democratic goals of the revolution. There are increasing doubts about the SCAF’s commitment to the transition to democracy in Egypt. The parliamentary elections, originally slated for September, have been pushed back to 28 November, and the proposed electoral rules have been criticized for their complexity. Many fear that SCAF’s decision to allow independent candidates to run for a third of the parliamentary seats could make it easier for Mubarak supporters to regain power in government. In protest, several political parties and organizations have threatened to boycott the elections.

In countries where repressive regimes have silenced their critics for decades, change will not come easily, nor as swiftly as hoped. As RSF secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said on the day of Mubarak’s resignation, “[This] symbolic first step must be followed through all the way to the creation of a real democracy in which journalists and netizens are no longer afraid to express their views, in which diversity of ideas and opinions no longer entails any risk of imprisonment, and in which the right to receive and impart news and information is truly respected.” The transitional government must be able to guarantee free expression and press freedoms for the Egyptian people, lest they repeat the mistakes of their predecessors and lose the trust of their people. Although this is not yet the case, we remain hopeful that free expression will be recognized as a human right within Egypt, and journalists, bloggers, and citizens will feel free to express themselves without fear of persecution.