Book Review: Notable lawyer analyses 'insulting the president' laws

Sayed Mahmoud, Friday 28 Sep 2012

Hamdy El-Assiouty looks at the legal side of debates about press freedom and free speech

Insulting the president
Book Cover - Insulting the president

Ehanet al-raais wa horreyat al-raay wal-taabeer (Insulting the President and Freedom of Expression) by Hamdy El-Assiouty, Cairo: Dar Rawafed, 2012.

The last few months have witnessed a widespread debate, both legally and in the media, on the issue of press freedom and freedom of speech, after the first case since the 2011 revolution when a journalist was held in temporary detention for insulting the president.

There was also the case of Islam Afifi, editor-in-chief of Al-Dostor newspaper, who was banned from travelling, while all copies of the 11 August edition of the paper were confiscated, because of its provocative content in relation to the Brotherhood.

After demands from journalists, human rights organisations and media workers to end legal procedures against journalists, President Mohamed Morsi passed a law stopping the temporary detention of journalists for what they had written.

The first book on this much debated topic has just been published. Researcher El-Assiouty notes that 'insult' is a relative term that is difficult to structure in law and whose definition depends on the judge in each case.

A close look at the legal clauses related to the topic of insulting the president or the ruler finds that such clauses have often been used to punish the defendant. The author suggests the cultural, social and political atmosphere determines how to define what is 'improper' or an 'insult' in such cases, while also affecting how much faith in freedom of expression there is, especially when criticising the ruler or public figures, adding that during difficult times, when the state is weak, such cases increase.

The book, which uses a photo of President Morsi on its cover, explores the historical and legal aspects of the crime, stating that in the past, it used to be a religious crime against the sacred, but now it is a vague crime, punished through limiting freedom of expression.

While Egyptians throughout history have criticised their rulers through sarcasm, jokes and poems, very few individuals were charged with this crime, until the twentieth century.

Renowned Egyptian intellectual Abbas Mahmoud El-Akkad was charged with this crime in 1930 when he headed magazine Al-Moaayad Al-Jadeed, after wronging Egyptian royalty

The charge was also made against Ahmed Fouad Negm in 1978 for his poem 'Important Statement' which was read aloud during a meeting at Ain Shams University, and included a sarcastic mimic of the voice and style of the late president Anwar Sadat. Other cases are mentioned, such as those against blogger Kareem Amer in 2007 and against Mounir Said Hanna in 2009.

Yet now criticism takes a different tone under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Individuals sharing material published online and on social media websites are being charged even if they didn't produce the material themselves, and the punishment could go as far as shutting down the websites and punishing the administrators as accomplices in the crime.

Lately, the author notes, there are an increasing number of lawyers raising hesba [a form of class action suit found in Islamic sharia] cases against writers and artists.

El-Assiouty argues that punishment in such cases should be reduced and that a code of ethics should be established through the Journalists Syndicate.

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