The constitution affirms that “there shall be no crime or punishment except pursuant to a law” (Article 95). In other words, a person can’t be accused, prosecuted, and convicted of a crime unless it is stated and defined in a law. Thus you can’t be charged with stealing your own money, failing to help a neighbor in need, or spending all your time in cafes because there is no law criminalizing such actions. Similarly, a court can’t sentence anyone to lashes, the amputation of a hand, or torture because these punishments are not recognized in Egyptian law.
This precept has been part of our constitutional order for decades, and it’s a vital safeguard for citizens’ rights, preventing the state and its executive bodies from arbitrarily inventing crimes with no basis in law in order to exclude opponents and gag the opposition.
Consider, however, how the line between political and security crimes enumerated in various laws on the one hand, and legitimate political activity on the other, has become blurred in our society. The equation of the two categories, as promoted by the state and encouraged by its media, is widely accepted among much of the public. In such a climate, restricting political parties and arresting their members simply for their involvement in politics becomes unobjectionable, and it seems normal to bandy about vague accusations of mocking the parliament, promoting human rights, publishing rumors about the state’s economic performance, or tarnishing the luster of the judiciary. There’s little awareness that, in fact, this has eroded one of our most significant constitutional rights: the right to engage in politics.
No one disputes that taking up arms and threatening citizens, their property, or state security are serious crimes deserving firm punishment, or that defeating terrorism requires the united efforts of the entire society, not just its security services. And this is not only true of bearing arms or planting explosives, but extends to other no less dangerous crimes, such as terrorist financing, incitement, or assistance, which facilitate these crimes and enable them to achieve their goals.
But these serious crimes are specifically enumerated in penal laws. Engaging in politics, however, is something else entirely. Politics necessarily involves establishing parties, holding meetings, issuing publications, disseminating particular economic and political ideas, and reaching out to local opinion-makers, professional and labor unions, and business representatives. It involves criticizing the government and its policies in various media, freely using social media, choosing candidates to run in elections, and then supporting and funding them.
These actions are all completely lawful and legitimate and do not violate the constitution or law in any way. It’s dangerous to lead the public to believe that simply holding a meeting to discuss political and economic conditions, joining a party, or advocating political ideas threatens state stability and security and is therefore worthy of arrest, interrogation, and prosecution.
What really threatens the stability and security of the state is closing off the remaining avenues of public engagement, whether political or civic, because it only exacerbates resentment and divisions. It leaves the field open to takfiri and terrorist thought, letting it attract adherents, and deprives society of the positive, creative, and protest energy of youth that it needs to overcome the current crises and challenges.
Political action in a sound, legal framework is not a threat to the country. On the contrary, it’s a guarantee for its stability, the smooth operation of its institutions, and the growth of a healthy dialogue in it. Instead of fighting young people’s engagement with politics, the state should encourage and support it, or at least not stand in the way of those with the courage, enthusiasm, and patriotism to join the fray.