During a recent television interview, I was asked whether, in my opinion, the Egyptian writer had a sufficient degree of freedom. I answered that no writer in Egypt or elsewhere was free enough to fully express his or her views. Part of the writer’s mission throughout history has been to fight restrictions on freedom imposed by political authorities, non-governmental institutions such as the church, or the prejudices and biases of society.
Some people might think that writers in the US have unrestricted freedom because they can expose a president who violates the law, as occurred with Nixon, or criticise a president for his arrogance and racism, as occurred with Trump. But what would happen if a writer took on an issue as controversial as the US’s special relationship with Israel and the pro-Israeli bias which sometimes leads Washington to pursue policies that are detrimental to its own interests and undermine the integrity of its foreign policy in the eyes of world? Could they oppose the official stance of their government without being accused of antisemitism or barred from practising their profession? The experience of the long-serving member of the White House press corps Hellen Thomas tells us no. Could they so much as ask, just ask how the White House can claim that human rights is a pillar of its foreign policy when it not only turns a blind eye to the flagrant human rights violations that Israel perpetrates in the occupied territories but also wields its veto to prevent the passage of any UN resolution to bring Israel to account for them?
All societies impose restrictions and boundaries to freedom of expression. Governments may not always be the ones to do so. Everyone who fought for women’s rights, the emancipation of slaves or other such causes ran up against society’s intolerance and bigotry even before the authorities’ laws and regulations. Yigal Amir, the young Israeli who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin for having signed the Oslo Accords which would “give our land to the Arabs” is emblematic of the anti-Arab fanaticism ingrained in Israelis. In Egypt, the assassination of Farag Fouda and the attempts on the life of Naguib Mahfouz and Makram Mohamed Ahmed were carried out by religious extremists in an attempt to stifle the freedom of opinion and expression enshrined in international and domestic laws and conventions.
One of the underpinnings of a person’s sense of belonging to his nation is their reassurance that they enjoy the rights and freedoms guaranteed and protected by the country’s constitution and laws. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines the freedom of opinion and expression as an intrinsic human right. Article 19 states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The freedom of the press and access to information serve the broader development goal of empowering people. Human empowerment is a multifaceted socio-political process intended to help people control the course of their personal lives.
The Egyptian Constitution of 2014 includes more than 40 articles that had not existed in previous constitutions. Most concern freedoms. The architects of the constitution followed a two-pronged approach in this regard. They incorporated texts explicitly providing for basic rights and freedoms, and they simultaneously enshrined international human rights conventions in the constitution. Article 93 gives the international agreements, covenants and conventions of human rights that have been ratified by Egypt the force of law. Thus the principles and guarantees of human rights and freedoms under the Egyptian constitutional system are grounded in both domestic and international sources.
Article 92 of the 2014 Constitution states: “A citizen’s rights and freedoms are inalienable and may not be suspended or diminished. No law regulating the exercise of rights and freedoms may restrict them in such a way as infringes upon their essence and foundation.”
The Egyptian Constitution contains a chapter with 47 articles detailing the rights and freedoms Egyptian citizens should enjoy and the duties for which they are responsible. For example, every individual has the inviolable right to dignity and it is incumbent upon the state to respect, guarantee and protect it. All forms of torture are a crime that has no statute of limitations. Article 53 states, “Citizens are equal before the law, possess equal rights and public duties, and may not be discriminated against on the basis of religion, belief, sex, origin, race, colour, language, disability, social class, political or geographical affiliation, or for any other reason. Discrimination and incitement to hate are crimes punishable by law. The state shall take all necessary measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination.” The next article guarantees personal freedom as a natural right that cannot be infringed upon. Another article addresses the right to privacy. It states, “Telegraph, postal and electronic correspondence, telephone calls and other forms of communication are inviolable, their confidentiality is guaranteed and they may only be confiscated, examined or monitored by causal judicial order for a limited period of time, and in cases specified by the law. The state shall protect the rights of citizens to use all forms and public means of communication, which may not be arbitrarily disrupted, stopped or withheld from citizens.”
This is the moral and legal arsenal that writers are armed with in their ongoing battle against attempts to restrict their freedom, a battle they have fought valiantly throughout history. The various forms of threats, abuse, prison and sometimes torture writers have endured is proof of the degree of their steadfastness which, over the years, has helped build, establish and secure the extensive body of rights and freedoms enshrined in international conventions and national constitutions.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly