Egypt Intellectuals protest but have no clear plan to stop govt infringement on freedoms

Mary Mourad, Friday 24 Aug 2012

Intellectuals, artists, writers and politicians from the non-Islamist front protested in downtown Cairo to protest recent actions against freedoms and to call for reform in the constitution drafting process

Protest for Personal Freedoms
Thursday protests for personal freedoms (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Hundreds of Egyptian intellectuals, artists, writers and politicians gathered Thursday evening in Talaat Harb Square to protest moves by the government seen as antagonistic to freedoms.

Specifically, they attempt to pressure the current leadership to reverse the gloomy trend that started with changing the editors-in-chief of state newspapers on 9 August and climaxed to pressing charges against the head of Al-Dostour newspaper for allegedly defaming President Morsi, however, the editor-in-chief was released Friday.

The gathering raised various demands but above they wanted to stop seeing state infringements on freedoms, such as: rejecting articles written by prominent writers; confiscating Al-Dostour newspaper; prosecuting its editor-in-chief in court and stopping transmission of satellite channel, Al-Faraeen, known traditionally for backing the previous regime.

Well-known writers and poets were present, including Zein El-Abdeen Fouad, who held a banner calling for a constitution for "all Egyptians."

"We will not let the constitution be written by only one faction of society that was elected by only three per cent of the people," referring to the Shura Council (lower house).

For Fouad, the real challenge is the constitution and the risk that it will limit freedoms even further than the previous regime did.

Protest for Personal Freedoms
Banners calling for freedom as a right (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Emad Abou-Ghazi, former minister of culture and acting secretary general of the Dostour political party, had a similar concern, worried that despite the overall agreement that the current conditions cannot yield a balanced constitution that pressure still needs to be exerted to ask for more. "Egyptians are fighting for a constitution since the year 1795, trying to partake in the destiny of their country. Hundreds of martyrs throughout history have died for this dream. Now this is being overshadowed by attempts to include vague articles in the current constitutions that would one day put the sharia [Islamic law] and the unelected institutions above the law."

Abou-Ghazi is greatly concerned about the recent actions against freedom of the media, "the current behaviours put us at the risk of returning to the darkest ages of Egypt, recalling the worst days of the Ommayad and Abbasi rulers of the past, when opposing the ruler was equalled to disbelief in God. We cannot let this happen and stand silent," though it wasn't clear what the next steps will be.

"All of us must take a stand; not just intellectuals and artist and writers but everyone to avoid the avalanche that is trying to build a new dictatorship after a revolution. While we are dreaming of a new state under the rule of law that guarantees freedoms and social justice for everyone, we find ourselves a regime that is already posing risks to freedoms and suppressing 'the other.'"

Party leaders from the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, including Mohamed Abul-Ghar and MP Bassem Kamel were present and news was out that former presidential heavy-weight contender Hamdeen Sabbahi was on his way. Amr Hamzawy, MP and head of Freedom Egypt party had Tweeted that he was on his way, and various members and senior figures from the Popular Socialist Coalition party and the Egyptian Socialist Party.

None of the political parties had banners or political statements but their members had various banners calling for freedoms in the constitution.

Mohamed Abla Protest for Personal Freedoms
Artist Mohamed Abla (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Artist Mohamed Abla, renowned cinema director, Daoud Abdel-Sayed and writers Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid and Gamal Al-Ghitany were also present.

One major surprise in the protest was the participation of a number of scholars from Al-Azhar, the Sunni world's religious authority based in Cairo.

They stood out in their unique, dark robes and red head cover.

Calling for freedoms and against the dictatorship of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they see as exceeding that of the Mubarak era, the members of the Azharites for Civil State movement said: "We reject the current Constituent Assembly that represents only one faction of society. If things don't change we will call on people to reject the constitution in the referendum," Sheikh Moahmed El-Aswany, spokesperson for the movement asserted.

"They cannot stand against Al-Azhar."

At first uneasy about their presence, the crowd made them the centre of attention after the Azhar scholars chanted along with everyone else for freedoms and for justice for the martyrs and those who have died throughout the course of the revolution.

Shabaan Youssef, the director of Zeitoun cultural workshop and an associate of the Tagammu Party is concerned that what we've been seeing may be only the beginning of a new age of repression. "Everywhere we go we demand a halt to these behaviours and for the Brotherhood to lift its hand off of culture and creativity. The National Front for Defence of Freedom of Expression will hold a conference for intellectuals. We will stand strong for freedoms at every forum we hold, even if we have to bring all our lawyers to contest laws limiting freedoms in court," Youssef asserted.

Chants rang out at the protest against the Muslim Brotherhood's counsellors, dictatorship, limitations on freedoms and for more freedoms and democracy. The chants of "batel" (illegitimate, or invalid) were being heard, just like in the first days of the revolution in January 2011, while many held banners carrying photos of icons of Egyptian culture, art, writing, actors and others. Calls to march to Tahrir Square disintegrated a number of times.

Protest for Personal Freedoms
Banners carrying photographs of historical figures (Photo:Mai Shaheen)

The breaking news that Morsi passed a law Thursday evening that revokes the Mubarak-era practice of detaining journalists for "publication offences" or defamation - and therefore saved Afify from further persecution in the eleventh hour - meant that attendance at the protest was low, explains Mahmoud El-Wardani. Some calls were narrowly-worded: to pressure the government to free Afify. However, some who turned out to protest are fighting to protect freedoms in general from the current attacks. "We should expect more of these confusions in the coming period," stated El-Wardani.

Journalists, including Mohamed Shoair from Literature News, were also confused about the legality of Morsi's law, stating that holding Afify was not legal to begin with. There was a heated debate among many protesters regarding the validity of the cause and whether the law passed was just propaganda or a necessary.

According to Haytham Mohamadeen, lawyer and active member of the Democratic Labour Party, although it could be considered that Afify's judge was tough on him, the judge nevertheless correctly implemented the law and all procedures. Therefore, Morsi's law was necessary to clear Afify.

Apparently this confusion over the legalities added to the pressure in the square against Morsi and the FJP. However, no statements or fliers were distributed, many of the figures that were present the first hour disappeared quickly and although "something must be done to stop this" no collective list of demands was officially announced and no plan for action was enunciated.

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