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Egypt parliament to discuss law to safeguard 'historical and religious symbols' from media defamation

Controversy was sparked Friday when commentator Farida El-Shobashi was critical, in a television interview, of the late religious cleric Mohamed Metwalli El-Sharawi

Gamal Essam El-Din , Sunday 19 Nov 2017
Egyptian late religious cleric Mohamed Metwalli El-Sharawi

Egypt's parliament is to discuss a law aimed at safeguarding "historical and religious symbols" from media defamation.

A number of Egyptian MPs agreed Sunday that a law aimed at prosecuting "political commentators and intellectuals who are heavily involved in defaming the country's historical and religious symbols" should be discussed and passed as soon as possible.

Ahmed El-Tahaway, an independent MP from the Nile Delta governorate of Sharqiya, said: "The law on incriminating defamation of historical and religious symbols" should be discussed and passed to prosecute "those who are fond of insulting these symbols via the media."

El-Tahaway cried foul that one of these symbols – the late religious cleric Mohamed Metwalli El-Sharawi – has recently faced insults on a private television channel.

"This is too much, because how can a high-prolife symbol like the late Sheikh Sharawi face all of these insults without getting a reaction from us?" said El-Tahaway, adding: "We can't stay silent anymore nor accept that one of our greatest religious symbols faces such insults on television screens."

El-Tahaway said Prosecutor-General Nabil Sadek should move quickly to take all necessary legal measures against "those who defamed Sheikh El-Shaarawi" – commonly known as the Imam of Religious Clerics – "on television in such a horrible way."

El-Tahaway's statement came two days after critical statements by political commentator Farida El-Shobashi on Sheikh El-Sharawi caused controversy.

In an interview with a private television channel Friday, El-Shobashi, a journalist with leftist leanings, accused Sheikh Sharawi and other Salafist clerics of playing a leading role in fomenting sectarian strife in Egypt and the Arab world since 1970s.

"No idols" 

El-Shobashi said she was also shocked when the late Sharawi said he prayed in thanks to God when Egypt was defeated in 1967's Six-Day War. "We should not turn these religious clerics into idols. All should be open to criticism," El-Shobashi said.

A number of lawyers said they will file lawsuits against El-Shoubashi, accusing her of leading a hostile campaign against the religion of Islam. El-Sharawi's family also said it has lodged a lawsuit against El-Shobashi with the prosecutor-general.

Omar Hamroush, secretary-general of parliament's religious affairs committee, told reporters Sunday that "defamation campaigns against Egypt's historical and religious figures have increased in recent months."

"We have some political commentators and intellectuals who are fond of disparaging these figures as a way to gain popularity and as a right of freedom of expression," said Hamroush

"Some weeks ago, we had a writer – Youssef Zeidan – who attacked Ahmed Orabi, an Egyptian nationalist leader who fought the British invasion in the 19th century, and now we have a commentator who attacked an enlightened religious cleric like Imam El-Sharawi."

Hamroush said he has drafted a law that aims to incriminate the defamation of "Egypt's historical and religious symbols."

"A person found guilty of insulting any of the country's religious symbols could face five or seven years in prison and a hefty fine of LE100,000," said Hamroush, adding: "The draft law was referred by parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Aal to the religious affairs committee and the legislative and constitutional affairs committee for discussion."

Hamroush said his draft law, which collected approval signatures from 60 MPs, aims to "safeguard public figures who played leading roles in Egypt's history against defamation."

"We should not let some exploit freedom of expression to tarnish the image of these historical figures in the eyes of the people or defame them, because this could leave a very negative impact on young people, leading them to feel disappointment and frustration and lose trust in their country and its leaders," said Hamroush.

"Egypt's historical figures or symbols are the ones who form an integral part of the state's official records."

"Those symbols are the ones who are recorded in school books and in the country's official documents as leading historical figures. The law's executive bylaws will also define in detail what is meant by the term 'historical symbols." 

While articles 1 and 2 of Hamroush's draft law prohibit defamation of the country's historical figures and symbols, Article 3 imposes a prison term ranging from three to five years in addition to a fine ranging from LE100,000 to LE500,000. Article 4 states that those who deal with the country's historical figures in scholarly studies and research will be exempt from any penalties.

Independent MP Samir Ghattas, however, told reporters that he is against Hamroush's draft law.

"This draft law reminds me of the Inquisition courts that were dominant in Europe in the Medieval era and I don't think that this draft law will gain approval in the House," said Ghattas.

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