In Egypt, setbacks on expression persist through legal avenues

Blows to freedom of expression have been ongoing in the year that lapsed since the 25 January revolution, causing observers to worry about the direction of an uprising that mainly called for the establishment of different liberties.

A common pre-revolutionary practice that still prevails now is that of using the legal system to curtail freedom of expression. The legal culture, the laws and the litigation processes have led to successful attacks on freedom of expression in the past.

Currently, remnants of the old regime, the ruling military council and Islamist lawyers are using the same tools.

On 26 February, Kamal Abbas, director of the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services, was sentenced in absentia to six months in prison for insulting Ismail Fahmy, a leading figure in the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation and a former member of Hosni Mubarak’s now-disbanded National Democratic Party.

Abbas received this sentence in light of comments he made on 9 June while attending a conference of the International Labor Organization in Geneva. Abbas reportedly interrupted Fahmy while he was delivering a speech to the conference. The labor activist criticized the trade union federation and its officials for representing the ruling regime, rather than workers.

At Helwan’s Court of Misdemeanors, defense lawyer and former manpower minister Ahmed Hassan al-Borai told Egypt Independent that “this lawsuit is a politicized case, not a legal case.” He said Mubarak regime members in the Egyptian Trade Union Federation were attempting to settle scores with Abbas for his activism in the field of independent trade unionism.

Borai added that such criticism does not constitute libel, slander or defamation, according to Egypt’s Penal Code, and moreover, “this alleged crime took place in Switzerland, not Egypt.” The lawyer said the case against Abbas should be thrown out, “as free speech is not criminalized in Switzerland.”

This is an attack on freedom of expression and on the free labor union movement, Borai concluded.

“In general, freedom of expression has been under attack since the revolution,” he said, “yet each lawsuit is different and has its own specific background.”

Another prevalent practice that predates the revolution is that third parties raise cases against individuals, threatening their freedom of expression on the basis that they harm religious values. This practice was commonly pursued against artists and writers.

Egypt’s top comedian, Adel Imam, was sentenced in February to three months imprisonment on charges of “defaming religion” in his movies.

An Islamist lawyer, Asran Mansour, had filed a lawsuit against Imam claiming that his movies portray a "contempt of religion," a charge criminalized under Article 98(F) of the Penal Code.

Similarly, Naguib Sawiris, the Christian billionaire-turned-liberal political sponsor, came under fire in June when he posted on Twitter an image of a bearded Mickey Mouse with Minnie Mouse donning a full face veil. Sawiris came under fierce criticism for his tweet and was accused of “defaming Islam and its symbols.”

Although Sawiris posted an official apology, Islamist MP Mamdouh Ismail filed a lawsuit against him, claiming he had openly displayed contempt of religion. Earlier this month, the Abul Ela Court of Misdemeanors threw out the charges leveled against Sawiris.

Political bloggers, who have commonly been legally penalized for their online publishing before the revolution, haven’t been spared afterwards.

Maikel Nabil is a case in point. On 10 April 2011, a military court sentenced Nabil to three years in prison on charges of “insulting the military” in his blog post titled “The army and the people were never one hand.” The blogger went on hunger strike in his prison cell and demands for his release grew steadily. Two days prior to the anniversary of the 25 January revolution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces pardoned him.

Emad Mubarak, executive director of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, said that “freedom of expression has definitely increased since revolution but is still facing numerous obstacles and threats.”

“In the past, people were afraid to speak or express their opinions, while journalists couldn’t discuss anything pertaining to the military institution,” he said. “Now people are talking freely and journalists are openly criticizing the military junta,” he said.

But setbacks are represented by the ruling military council’s several attacks on freedom of expression as manifest in bloggers’ detentions, journalists’ interrogations and the attempt to legalize a ban on protests, Mubarak said.

“This transitional stage is hazy and the future is not yet clear. We’ll wait and see where this transfer of authority goes,” said Mubarak. The election of a president and the conclusion of this interim period “will help us understand the trajectory of the revolution, and then we will be able to assess the future of freedom of expression.”

Mubarak added that the Islamist ascent can also be conducive to limiting freedom of expression.

“Old laws that allow for violations of the right to freedom of expression are still in use, while new laws are being discussed and drafted. Yet many of these drafts are not promising. A number of the draft laws proposed by the Islamist MPs are worrisome and disturbing,” Mubarak said.

“If issued, these conservative laws will threaten not only freedom of expression, but also freedom of assembly and association, along with other liberties,” he added.

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