Protecting freedom of information in Egypt

Freedom of Information and freedom of expression are under fierce and sustained attack in Egypt, North Africa and the Middle East. Innovative solutions are required to protect our right of assembly, our right to dialogue, our freedom of the press, our right to form political parties, and our right to communicate with our global neighbors. Yet sometimes the answers are right in front of us.

Much has been written about how "Army and the people are one hand" in Egypt. Overall, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has exercised a competent and relatively benign approach to governing Egypt. Yet, lest we lapse into complacency, there are some warning signs, particularly in the area of free expression and freedom of information.

First, the right of the Egyptian people to organize themselves into political groupings of their choice is under attack. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for September. This gives political parties only five months to form and prepare for elections. This short time line arguably heavily favors already established groups. New parties will need the approval of at least 5000 voters from ten of Egypt's 29 provinces. I attended a lecture at the American University in Cairo at Tahrir Square on Tuesday night, in which Nevine Mossad, Amr El Shobaky, Samer Soliman, and Ibrahim El Issawy said that this provision also requires publication in two major newspapers. The costs for this kind of publication could run to one million Egyptian pounds, which will likely disadvantage new parties.

A controversial law on political parties is also being bandied about that would disallow political parties with religious backgrounds. The SCAF enacted a political party formation law which would ban parties based on religion. One potential problem with such a law is how one determines whether a party is based on religion. What criteria will be used for this determination? In addition, the applications will be reviewed by the Shura Council's Political Parties Affairs Committee. Who will be on this committee? Who will appoint the members? Given that Egypt does not even have a Shura Council at the present time, this formulation is highly suspect. This law is potentially repressive, particularly given that it resurrects the ghost of Mubarak's tight control of the formation of political parties.
Second, the right of the Egyptian people to make an informed decision about important political matters is threatened. After some highly questionable amendments to the repressive 1971 Constitution were rushed through in the past week without adequate time for national dialogue, Al Jazeera reports that an entirely new constitution will be drawn up after the election. When exactly this new Constitution will be put in place is unclear. The fact that a vote was held on the constitutional amendments was momentous and an important strike for democracy, as was the high turnout, and the largely peaceful conduct of the vote. Yet, on the negative side of the ledger, the amendments were written by a secretive group appointed by the military with no discernible criteria, and then were rushed through in four weeks. The vote was held without adequate time or education for national dialogue in a country with a 30 percent illiteracy rate. The people should have had a say in who was to be on the committee, and the people should have had time to digest the information after adequate public debate.

Third, the right of the people to organize and peaceably assemble is threatened. The interim government’s decree criminalizing strikes, protests, public congregations and street assemblies is nothing short of anti-revolutionary. As Karam Saber, director of the Land Center for Human Rights has noted, this bill is a whole sale crackdown on civil society and freedom of expression. It must not stand.  

Fourth, the ability of the people to communicate with each other and with the global community is under attack. Mubarak shut off telephony and the Internet in Egypt on 27 January. Our neighbor Colonel Muammar Qadaffi has followed his lead and Libya remains in an information blackout. Vodafone revealed new details this week about the Internet and mobile phone blackout that took place in Egypt on 27 January, 2011. Security officials informed representatives of mobile phone companies that security required a suspension of service. The companies, according to Vodafone executive Hatem Dweidar "had no option but to obey." Vodafone has put forward a proposal to amend this law to limit the powers of the security forces to control communication. I applaud this proposal, but I argue that it is not enough.

The 27 January experience teaches us that a move away from centralization, particularly in the presence of autocratic governments, is crucial. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has proven that it is not yet a democratic government; ISPs and other organizations in the private sector and civil society should invest in VSATs, or secure satellite links, or find other means to create non-vulnerable gateways that cannot be blocked or controlled by this government. ISPs must also decide at what point they choose to cooperate with government repression, and at what point they resist.

As we fight against constraints on our freedom of information and freedom of expression, I suggest that an important touchstone as Egypt moves toward democracy should be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Each time the government — whether that of Mubarak, or of the SCAF, or whatever government follows — takes an action, we should measure it against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to that document passed by the United Nations in 1948, "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." Enshrining this concept in the bill of rights of a new Egyptian constitution is essential. It will protect Egyptians’ right to assemble, their right to organize parties, and their right to communicate through electronic media.  

Yet, the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although venerable, go back further to the Enlightenment of the late 1700s. The Enlightenment placed at its center the values of freedom, democracy, and reason. The Enlightenment was fueled by its own information revolution of books and the vernacular press. I believe that Enlightenment values were at the heart of the Egyptian Revolution whose slogans were “bread, freedom and human dignity,” as well as “change, freedom and social justice.” Indeed, what is old is new again. The words of Rousseau, Bolivar, Voltaire and Jefferson read beautifully whether in English, French, Spanish or Arabic.  It is remarkable how the ideas of the Enlightenment, which burned brightly enough to free America, France and Russia from their dictators, can help us find our way in Egypt’s revolution. We should heed the clarion call of those ideals, and make sure that we carry them through in Egypt's democratic moment.

Warigia Bowman is an Assistant Professor in the Public Policy and Administration Department, American University in Cairo,

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