How now freedom of expression?

01-07-2015 03:26 PM

Samia Sidhom -Sheri Abdel-Messih



Anyone following the western media may receive the message that Egypt is a country where freedom of expression is dead. Egypt, the media implies, is ruled by an autocrat who as Chief of Egyptian Armed Forces deposed a democratically elected president and then sat in his place, and where no criticism whatever is allowed.
This may be what the media in the West says, but what do Egyptians say? “Is this the same country we live in that they are talking about?” asked one young Egyptian woman. “The Egypt where we are inundated with criticism every minute of the day? There is not one newspaper, even State-owned ones; not one TV channel; not one online news site that is not full of criticism of practically everything and anything that takes place in Egypt, and of President Sisi and his regime.”


Incessant criticism
A middle-aged Egyptian teacher told Watani: “We’re sick and tired of criticism. It’s as though the media lives by the slogan, ‘I criticise, therefore I am’. Why don’t they talk about all the things that have taken a positive turn since Egyptians overthrew the post-Arab Spring Islamist regime of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)? The security that now reigns in our streets, and the serious efforts to revive the economy? Why don’t they appreciate the huge effort that goes into battling Islamist terrorism on our soil, on our borders, and in our region? Yes, there are plenty of problems in Egypt—some of them almost chronic—but, under President Sisi, we’re on the right road to tackling them.” And if criticising the regime has nothing to do with freedom of expression, what does?
Early last June, just a year after Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi assumed the presidency, the columnist Anwar al-Hawari who has incessantly criticised President Sisi on account of his military background, began his daily column with the sentence: “I must admit that the man who withstands my criticism for a full year during which I enjoy all the freedom to attack him is a man worthy of respect.” He then went on with his usual criticism of the President.
Obviously the western media is turning a blind eye to positive changes in Egypt in the wake of the downfall of the post-Arab Spring Islamist regime. It insists that Egypt is a country where no criticism is allowed and where freedom of expression is dead. And since President Sisi is depicted as the army chief who deposed Egypt’s first freely-elected president and sat in his place, the picture of a despotically ruled Egypt where according to al-Jazeera ‘criticism is not allowed’, is complete.

The view from within
Egyptians, however, see their country in a different light. They see Mursi as the Muslim Brother who rode the wings of democracy to narrowly win Egypt’s presidency then, five months later, made a grasp for power and issued decisions that effectively put an end to all democratic practice. They see him as the president who cared so little for Egyptians or was so inept that he let the economy plunge into a free fall, did nothing to restore the post-Arab Spring security breakdown and unprecedentedly alarming rise in crime, and ruined Egypt’s pre-Arab Spring international relations and fostered disadvantageous ones. Worse, he attempted to Islamicise Egypt, a move utterly rejected by Egyptians famous for their time-honoured tolerance and moderation.
As to President Sisi, Egyptians see him as the army chief who tried hard to avert a looming civil war in Egypt on account of the intransigence of the Islamist ruling regime in face of public demands for democracy, freedom, and non-Islamicisation. When all efforts failed and millions of Egyptians took to the streets on 30 June 2013 to demand that Mursi steps down, the army had to step in and side with the people. Sisi became an Egyptian icon, a national hero to this day, and rose to be president by a landslide vote. They see that, whatever his faults or failings, he is leading Egypt to a democratic, prosperous future through hard, dedicated work and legendary leadership.
With the view of Egypt from the inside so significantly different from the one propagated from outside the country, can Egyptians be blamed for imagining some sort of western conspiracy against them? Some conspiracy that goes along the line of the notorious US Greater Middle East Project which Egypt broke away from the day it ousted the Islamists?


Majority approval

Despite the incessant criticism of anything and everything by the media inside Egypt, that same media admits that, overall, Egyptians are happy with the change in their country after ousting the Islamist MB. A lot may remain to be desired, but another whole lot has been achieved. A Baseera poll that monitored public opinion on the one-year long performance of President Sisi revealed that 69 per cent of Egyptians fully approved of his performance during that year; 85 per cent said they would re-elect him as president; 92 per cent said that security had been regained on Egypt’s streets; 38 per cent said job opportunities are more abundant; 47 per cent said there had been an improvement in the living standard of the underprivileged; and 58 per cent saw an improvement in social justice. Why is it that such information is never reported and circulated in the West?


NGO and protest laws
The western media appears to be only interested in the NGO law and the protest law which have come in for harsh criticism by a number of Egyptian rights groups and political parties. Even these laws are poorly reported in the West, with many of the facts deliberately or mistakenly obscured. The NGO law requires full transparency as to the funding of NGOs and places restrictions on foreign funding since, under the pretext of promoting rights and democracy, several rights organisations in Egypt were exploited by foreign powers during the Arab Spring to further agendas that worked against Egypt.
As for the protest law, it opens with: “Citizens have the right to hold and join public meetings, marches and peaceful protests in accordance with the provisions and regulations of the protest law.” The law consists of 25 articles that outline in detail the conditions that must be met before a protest, political meeting or march is held. It also details the penalties for violations of the law.
The law requires three days’ notification before protesting; in addition, the Interior Ministry has the right to “cancel, postpone or move” the protest if it determines that protestors will “breach … the law”. The organisers have the right to seek urgent court decisions on the matter, so the protest may not be delayed or cancelled. If the protestors insist on demonstrating without previous notice, they can do so in various adequate public spaces designated for protest without prior notification, as the law stipulates.


Designated protest areas
Giza governorate has designated a spacious open area at the end of Faisal Road as a venue for public gatherings, processions, or peaceful protest without prior notification. The area can accommodate some 10,000 individuals, lies close to main thoroughfares, and is easily accessible by public transport. It is also detached from residential or commercial areas, thus ensuring no disruption to the daily lives and activities of the public. Suez has assigned a stadium for a similar purpose, and other Egyptian governorates have followed in the same footsteps.
The law was issued in November 2013 and was signed by the interim president Adly Mansour. Whereas it has been harshly criticised by rights activists, many in Egypt see it as a lifesaver.
Sameh Salah, an engineer at a software company, believes that with this law the country has regained stability and discipline.
“We’ve had more than enough of MB demonstrations and violence; they crippled the country and spread fear in our hearts. They clashed with the police and innocent lives were lost. Now that farce, conducted in the name of freedom and democracy, is fast coming to an end,” Salah says.
Muhammed al-Masry, a young graphic designer, disagrees. “The protest law is not constitutional,” he says. “The Constitution stipulates that individuals have the unconditional right to assembly. This law aims at getting rid of demonstration in first place. It is a law of bad repute that would only be passed under an authoritarian regime.”
Abdullah Khalil, an international expert on human rights, rejects some of the protest law articles, since, as he says, they confuse the demonstration law with the penal code. Mr Khalil, who supports peaceful protest, says that rioting leads to crimes which should be subject to the general penal code, not criminalised by the protest law.




A right … with provisions
The young journalist Milad Hanna told Watani that demonstrating was a right for all provided it does not violate the rights of others nor bring production to a halt.
“The protest law is a pretext for activists to have their own chaotic way regardless of everyone else,” Mr Hanna said. “Those activists call for a ‘State of law’, but they do not respect the law. They want to have the right to protest whenever and in whichever way they wish, which does not exist in any respectable country.”
“May God protect our President Sisi,” says Amm Hassan, a middle-aged taxi driver. “He rid us of the ‘childish’ behaviour of some protestors; they act like they have no idea that their demonstration and roadblocks deprive us of our livelihood.”
Sally, a university student, agrees and says she feels happy with the protest law. “In the wake of the Arab Spring uprising and during the MB rule of President Mursi, I used to be terrified of being on the street because I might get caught in a violent demonstration. Even on campus, there was no feeling of security. Islamist students destroyed everything in their way as they protested against the fall of Mursi.”
Umm Ahmed, a vegetable vendor in a street market, says she knows nothing about any laws, but is extremely happy that the MB demonstrations are more or less over. “They were full of violence and blood,” she says.


Compared to western countries
A blogger who identified himself as Sam, wrote in English:
“To all the kids who think they are the ‘youth of the revolution’, I have lived in Canada for more than 10 years now. If you did in Canada what you are doing in Egypt you will be in jail the same day and will find NO ONE to support you. Stop this childish behaviour.”
But another Canadian commented: “Here in Canada we consider the police brutal to demonstrators, and I speak first hand because I have been on anti-shale gas protests and seen the way the police and authorities behave, I could send you a video of the way they arrested an indigenous woman elder, and that wasn’t an isolated case. Sure they would put you in jail at once!”
If anything, both comments prove the point that protest is not treated in any clement manner by western States. The whole world saw how demonstrators in the US and Europe have been dispersed. Police brutality should be taken to account by the law, as it has been in Egypt when a police officer accused of killing a protestor was handed a life sentence in prison. But laws regulating protest do exist in various ‘free’ countries, and demonstration is not an activity to be conducted without confines.
Egyptians in the mainstream see no point in the West’s attack against the protest law. They see that freedom of expression in their country is alive and kicking, whether in the form of the freedom they have to criticise the authorities or officials concerned or to protest against them, Western allegations that ‘freedom of expression in Egypt is dead’ is seen by Egyptians as grossly erroneous and reeking of double standards.

Watani International
1 July 2015





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