Controversy is again raging through Egypt, this time around no less than the event which shook the country over the 18 days between 25 January and 11 February in 2011 and came to be known as the 25 January Revolution.
This revolution ended with the stepping down of the longtime President Hosni Mubarak and plunged the country into some three years of political turmoil. It propelled the Islamist Muslim Brothers (MB) to the highest pinnacle of power in June 2012 when their candidate Muhammad Mursi became president, then overthrew them one year later in July 2013.
The black box
Many in Egypt are now persuaded that the January 2011 Revolution was orchestrated by a joint conspiracy between the United States and MB on one side and Egyptian activist groups on the other. The activist groups, it is now widely believed, were the ones responsible for working up the discontent among Egyptians and campaigning on Facebook for the street protests during the 18-day uprising.
A TV show Al-Sundouq al-Aswad (The Black Box) recently launched by the independent satellite channel Al-Qahira wal-Nass has attracted large audiences because the presenter Abdel-Rehim Ali has been broadcasting recordings of telephone calls made by young activists who played a leading role in the 25 January 2011 Revolution. The calls reveal that youth groups and movements such as the 6 April Movement did take part in a conspiracy by the MB in collusion with Qatar and the US. The leaks have stirred heated controversy among political figures and the Egyptian public with argument raging over the right of the activists to privacy and the right of the public to know.
When asked about his sources, Mr Ali who is a researcher and expert on Islamist movements refused to reveal them. He told the Cairo State-owned Al-Ahram Weekly that his work researching Islamist movements led him to deal with the Islamists, including the MB, and also the Security Services.
Watani took the issue to the legal and constitutional experts.
Truth about the heroes
Tahani al-Gebali, a former judge at the Supreme Constitutional Court, compares between the current issue in Egypt and the WikiLeaks, founded in 2006, which leaked official documents some from no less than the CIA. “The issue is all about balance between the public’s right to know and the privacy and personal rights of anyone involved in the leaked items. I believe it is Ali’s right not to mention his sources,” Ms Gebali says. “Anyone who suspects the authenticity of the recordings or documents should file an official complaint to the Prosecutor-General, but this would not prevent the publishing or airing of the information under the pretext of protecting privacy and personal freedom.”
Ms Gebali insists, however, that it is the public’s right to know whether those in power and the ‘heroes’ on the political scene are really national leaders or traitors. “The entire issue is very critical,” she says; “Egypt is at a stage where the map of the political elite in Egypt is constantly changing. The 25 January 2011 and 30 June 2013 revolutions were brought about by the people, so the right of the people to know the truth about their heroes supersedes the right of those heroes to privacy.”
Punishable by law
But General Ali Zein al-Abdeen, Professor of Criminal Law at the Police Academy, disagrees. “Ali has put himself under legal liability, and the Prosecutor-General should directly question him and charge him with disclosing personal information, and refer him to court. The prosecution should ask how he obtained the recordings he broadcast, since they could only have been obtained by spying technology that exists in Egypt only with specific sovereign apparatuses. It is illegal to spy on anyone except with justified judicial authorisation, and only for a period not exceeding a month. That period may be renewed with another authorisation. The criminal procedures law stipulates that only the investigator may listen to the recordings, with the attendance of the accused and his lawyer; whoever publishes these recordings by any means is subject to imprisonment and a fine.”
Article 95 of the criminal procedures law states: “The investigating judge has the right to order the seizure of all letters, messages, newspapers, parcels at post offices, telegrams in telegram offices; and to order wired and wireless calls to be monitored or private conversations to be recorded if there is a benefit to revealing the truth in a crime or petty crime punishable by law with a prison sentence of more than three months. In all cases, seizures, reviews, monitoring or recording shall be according to a justified warrant and for a period that does not exceed 30 days, and may be extended for a similar period of time more than once.”
Mr Abdeen says that article 309-bis (138) penalises whomever violates another’s privacy, and explicitly cites eavesdropping on phone calls.
Pre-condition: official complaint
Muhammad Hamed al-Gamal, the former head of the State Council, added his weight to Mr Abdeen’s argument. “Generally speaking, the Constitution we have just approved and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights do not allow eavesdropping or spying on people except with a judicial warrant. However, speaking or reporting crimes in the media is not in itself a crime. When this happens, it is a public act open to all, and the general prosecution may hasten to investigate any complaint on the information leaked because in case of evidence of perjury or wrongdoing; the offender should be brought to justice.”
Mr Gamal believes that Mr Ali could not have leaked the information he claimed he obtained except with approval from the security authorities concerned. He says the media plays an important role in reporting crimes related to the public domain. The prosecution should investigate any complaint it receives, but it can take no action unless official complaints are made.
Was the 1991 film Playing with the Big Boys a precursor to Abdel-Rehim Ali’s Black Box?
The dreamer of dreams
The controversy over Abdel-Rehim Ali’s Black Box aired by al-Qahira wal-Nass satellite channel brings to my mind very strongly the 1991 film Playing with the Big Boys which was ranked 91st out of the 100 top best films in the history of Egyptian Cinema.
The story of the film revolves around a jobless man who suddenly starts reporting serious crimes before they take place and says his information is based on ‘dreams’. As action develops the audience discovers that these ‘dreams’ are actually information leaked to him by his friend who works as a telephone operator and eavesdrops on people’s conversations, discovering in the process countless social and political crimes. The hero, despite being a common man and jobless, possesses a keen sense of patriotism and social responsibility that leads him to report these crimes, many of which were committed or contemplated by men in high ranking positions. When the “big boys” discover their calls are being intercepted they murder the eavesdropper, ‘the leak’ and tortured the ‘dreamer’. The film ends with the hero defiant and in pain, yet wildly crying: “I won’t stop dreaming, I’ll go on dreaming!”
Unlike the Black Box, the film went well with the public and stirred no argument. Yet the question which today begs an answer is whether the airing of the phone calls by Mr Ali is ethical, legal, or as some claim heroic?
Opinions range from regarding the airing of the calls as a flagrant violation of privacy to seeing Mr Ali as a hero reporting crimes against Egypt that ought to be investigated by the general prosecution. A third opinion, however, insists that the presenter and the activists are all violators who must be brought to justice: Mr Ali for invading privacy and the activists for their respective crimes.