Egypt's revolution: Calls for freedom have yet to be realised

Yasmine Fathy, Thursday 24 Jan 2013

When Mubarak was ousted almost two years ago, revolutionaries believed they had won their freedom. Critics of Egypt's new constitution, however, say this isn't necessarily the case

25 January revolution
Egyptian pro-democracy supporters gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 18, 2011 (Photo: Reuters)

'Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!' That was the cry that echoed through Egypt during the 18 days of the revolution. In early 2011, Mubarak was still in power, controlling the country with an iron fist. But after three decades, Egyptians had had enough and hit streets and public squares, vowing not to go home until they regained their freedom.

During the Mubarak era, 'freedom' was an elusive concept. Journalists and activists were targeted – even jailed – for voicing any criticism of the president. Protesters, demanding change, were assaulted by baton-wielding security officers who beat them up before hauling them off to jail. Workers demanding better conditions were ignored; attempts to create unions through which they might attain their rights were often thwarted. And minorities, such as Coptic Christians and Bahais, were often marginalised.

When Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, Egyptians rejoiced, believing they had found their long-lost freedom. But have they?

Freedom of Speech

Egypt's new constitution, approved on 25 December, has imposed new restrictions on media freedom in Egypt.

Many articles have caused concern. Among these is Article 44, which criminalises the 'insulting of prophets,' and Article 48, which allows a court to shut down media outlets if the latter do not 'respect the sanctity of the private lives of citizens and the requirements of national security.'

Article 215 replaces Egypt's Higher Council for Journalism, an elected body, with a 'National Media Council' mandated with setting "controls and regulations that ensure the media's commitment to adhering to professional and ethical standards." Article 216, meanwhile, stipulates the creation of another media agency, the National Press and Media Association. But according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), this article does not state how members of this body would be chosen or how they would adhere to the "ethical standards" in question.

"Local journalists fear the agency could end up serving the Muslim Brotherhood, similar to how the Shura Council [the upper house of Egypt's parliament] in July appointed Brotherhood members to leadership positions in media outlets," the CPJ noted in a 4 December statement.

Nor does the new constitution protect journalists from criminal prosecution – a tool frequently used by the Mubarak regime to cow overly-critical commentators.

"The proposed constitution does nothing to halt the practice of imprisoning journalists for press-related offenses, despite the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate's repeated requests to the constitutional committee to include such a provision," the CPJ complained.

What's more, under the current Egyptian penal code, Egyptian journalists can be criminally prosecuted for 'defamation' and other crimes. A new report published by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) reveals that Egypt's penal code contains at least 77 articles pertaining to freedom of speech.

According to the ANHRI, many of these laws have been present for centuries.

"It should be noted that the Egyptian legislator, under the pressure of successive powers since the Ottoman empire through the rule of Mohamed Ali's family and until the military rule after the revolution of July 1952, didn’t find it necessary, most of the time, to repeal such inherited laws from the previous eras, in relation to punishments for the exercise of freedom of expression," the report states. "The legislator's efforts focused on adding more restrictions and expanding the scope of accusations."

ANHRI head Gamal Eid added that the number of lawsuits filed against Egyptian citizens accused of 'insulting the president' in the first 200 days of President Morsi's term "exceeds those filed under all Egyptian rulers since 1892."

A number of similar charges of insulting the president have been raised against public figures since Morsi came to power, including television anchor Mahmoud Saadi, psychiatrist Manal Omar, journalist Abdel-Halim Qandil and TV personality Tawfiq Okasha.

Satirist Bassem Youssef, whose programme 'El Barnameg' has become a symbol of post-revolution freedom of speech, now also faces similar charges after repeatedly poking fun at Morsi on his weekly television show.

Additionally, Coptic-Christian schoolteacher Bishoy Kamel was sentenced to six years in prison for posting cartoons on Facebook deemed 'defamatory' to Islam and the Prophet Mohamed and for 'insulting' President Morsi and his family. Similar charges were filed against 17-year-old Gamal Abdou Massour, accused of posting cartoons critical of Prophet Mohamed on Facebook.

Freedom of Association

When the Egyptian Revolution began on 25 January 2011, there were only three independent professional syndicates. The first was established in 2007 and was officially recognised two years later. On 31 January, labour activists and workers established the Egyptian Independent Trade Union Federation from Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Shortly after the revolution, labour strikes were staged with increasing frequency and the number of syndicates skyrocketed to 1,200 in the private and public sectors; labour unions appeared for government employees and street vendors.

But labour activists still failed to get rid of Trade Union Law 35 of 1976, which restricted workers' right to form unions.

Independent syndicates had proposed a new law to the government in 2011. The law was handed to the then ruling military council but was ignored for months. After parliament was elected in November 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary bloc created another version of the law while the state-controlled Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions (EFTU) penned a third.

"None of the laws were passed before parliament was dissolved," Haytham Mohamadein, a lawyer and labour activist, said. Additionally, in 2011, Manpower Minister Ahmed El-Borei dissolved the board of the state-run federation, appointing a steering committee to run it instead. But to date, no elections for a new syndicate head have been held. Elections have been postponed three times for a six-month period, says Mohamadein.

He adds that new manpower minister, Khaled El-Azhari, has repeatedly ignored independent workers. "He never invites them to any meeting in which workers' issues are being discussed, but extends invitations to workers who are known Mubarak loyalists," Mohamadein said.

"Even the workers' representative in the Constituent Assembly [which drafted Egypt's new constitution] was a member of Mubarak's old union," he added.

Last November, Morsi issued decree 97, which would allow El-Azhari to replace all ETUF members over 60 years old. These would be replaced by the runners-up in the 2006 elections, which had been dominated by Mubarak supporters at the time. The decree also gives El-Azhari the right to fill vacant positions with his own appointments in the event that he can't find these runners-up.

"This would give him the power to control the union; new members would be chosen by him and not elected by union members," Mohamadein said.

Egyptians workers have also failed to realise their long-time demand for a national minimum monthly wage of LE1,200.

Freedom of Assembly

In March 2011, the Egyptian cabinet issued a decree-law that criminalised strikes, protests, demonstrations and sit-ins that interrupted private- or state-owned businesses or hurt the economy. The decree-law stipulated a maximum one-year prison sentence and fines of up to LE0.5 million.

However, according to lawyer Malak Adly of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), the law was to be applied only as long as the state of emergency was in force, and so was not widely used on the ground.

In late December, the government released a new anti-protest law. The law appeared in several publications, including the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice newspaper. The law was not new, however, says Adly, and is, in fact, recycled from Law 14 of 1923, which had been used by Egypt's British occupiers to curtail public dissent.

"The Ministry of Justice basically made a copy of the law and gave it a new title," says Adly. "Then they quickly withdrew it because of the outcry it caused."

Indeed, Egypt's political forces and rights groups slammed the law. One of the more contentious articles stated that protests could only be held between 7am and 7pm; another stated that activists must obtain prior permission from security forces before holding protests; and another forbade protesters from chanting controversial slogans.

"What’s the point of staging a protest if you can't make controversial statements?" asks Adly. "This law was regurgitated by the Morsi regime so as to give it revolutionary legitimacy."

The law's ultimate fate, meanwhile, remains unclear.

"But I expect it will reappear soon and will be passed by parliament," says Adly.

Freedom of Belief

Article 2 of Egypt's 1971 Constitution, stating that "the principles of Islamic Law are the primary source of legislation," has remained in place. However, two new articles pertaining to religion were added to Egypt's new national charter.

Article 219 defines the 'principles' of Islamic Law on which civil laws will be based. This article stipulates that "the principles of Islamic Law comprise its general rules and jurisprudential method as understood in the Sunni schools."

Many believe this expresses clear bias towards the Sunni branch of Islam, to which most Egyptians adhere, while ignoring other sects such as Shiism.

Additionally, Article 4 also states that a new 'supreme scholars committee' will be formed by Al-Azhar, the country's highest Islamic authority, which would be consulted on all matters pertaining to Islamic Law. This, according to legal experts, gives Al-Azhar the right to meddle in the law-making process. The article also immunises Al-Azhar's Grand Imam from deposition by the state – and even by members of the scholars committee tasked with appointing him.

Rights groups have also expressed worry over Article 11, which states that the state "shall protect ethics, morality and public order," fearing that this could lead the government to impose its own version of public behaviour. Since Islamist parties now dominate the government, this may also mean that this version of morality would be religiously inspired, experts say.

Article 43 of the new constitution, meanwhile, declares that the state will only recognise the three 'divine' religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This clause caused an outcry among Egypt's Bahais, who have been demanding recognition from the Egyptian government for the past decade. The constitution also confines the right to build houses of worship to followers of the three divine faiths.

Notably, the number of lawsuits raised in Egypt for alleged crimes of blasphemy has skyrocketed over the past two years.

According Ishak Ibrahim of the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, 35 lawsuits have been filed for 'insulting religion' in the two years since Egypt's revolution.

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