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Egypt fails on free speech
Egypt fails on free speech
Along with arresting newspaper editors, the state security apparatus is restricting access to websites, and the internet itself
Monday, November 3,2008 17:20
by Ibrahim El Houdaiby Guardian

The crackdown on freedom of speech is mounting in Egypt as the failed social and economic policies of the regime cause the state security apparatus to gain more power. A few days ago I sent out an email to my distribution list, with a link to a piece I"ve written for Ikhwanonline.net, the Muslim Brotherhood"s official Arabic website. A few minutes later, a friend of mine who works for Al-Ahram, Egypt"s largest public-owned newspaper, responded by email telling me she could not read the article as the access to the website is restricted.

According to the newspaper"s policy, accessing the website is a "violation of your internet usage policy", and the Muslim Brotherhood — which has 88 parliamentarians comprising 20% of the Egyptian parliament"s seats — belongs to the "extremist groups" category.

This should not be acceptable in a website, where journalists are supposed to access all different sources of information, and connect with people across the political spectrum. It is definitely unacceptable from a public-owned newspaper, which should maintain neutrality and political autonomy. Certainly, labelling the Brotherhood as an extremist group is unacceptable. Even President Mubarak declared in a statement to the very same newspaper, Al-Ahram, in 1993, that there are two trends of Islamic movements in Egypt, a moderate one that engages in politics and debate, and an extremist radical one that detaches from society and uses violence.

But this is not a mere assault on the Brotherhood. As I began writing this piece I called my friend again to inquire about other websites and it turned out that all blogs of young Egyptian activists are restricted.

It seems that Egypt"s regime could no longer tolerate the escalating number of scandals revealed by free press, whether online or in print, so it has decided to lower the bar of tolerance in print newspaper and restrict access to online publications.

A few weeks ago, Ibrahim Eissa, the outspoken editor of the independent newspaper Al Dostoor was sentenced to two months in prison after being convicted of "spreading false rumors regarding the president"s health", although he was later pardoned. A few months earlier, four newspaper editors were sentenced to a year in prison after being accused of "attacking ruling figures". Thanks to domestic and international pressures, none of these had to serve their sentences. Yet the message was clearly delivered: democracy spring is over.

This assault on journalists will probably affect their willingness to reveal other scandals, and hold the government and ruling elite responsible for the deteriorating political, economic and social conditions in Egypt.

Internet access in public utilities in Egypt is also not as easy as it was a few months ago, when I used to check my email wherever I stopped to have a cup of coffee or some food. A couple of months ago, I was waiting for a friend in a cafe when I tried to access my email. There was no connection, so I called the waiter and asked whether I have to pay a fee for the internet. He said that the internet was still free, but that I needed to register at the cashier, and a password would be sent to my mobile phone. "These are orders from the state security apparatus," he said. In other words, they need to have my phone number to identify me, and identify websites I decide to access.

A few days later I tried to use a new mobile phone line but it didn"t work. When I called customer service to complain, the operator apologised, and said they could only activate it when they have all my information. I told him I would rather stay anonymous and that this was specifically why I was using another line, because I wanted only a few people to access me though that line. He said that "these are orders from the state security apparatus", and that I could not use my phone otherwise.

As my friend arrived at the cafe, I told him about the ridiculous new policy. He told me that only a few days earlier, he had followed a link to a news report on Ikhwanweb.com, the Muslim Brotherhood"s official English website, and only a couple of minutes later a state security agent was at the cafe"s gate, checking who was accessing the website.

All that comes only a few months after the notorious document, known as the "Charter of Principles", was drafted by Arab information ministers in Cairo last February. The draft calls for the prohibition of attacking all ruling and religious figures. It states that it upholds and respects freedom of speech but, as always, the devil lies in the details. The document associates this freedom with "respecting individuals" rights and privacy", "not promoting radical ideas" and "protecting the supreme interests of the countries". One can only imagine how these broad concepts could be used under Egypt"s repressive regime.

Sarcastically, the regime that calls for respecting individuals" privacy is the very same regime that violates this privacy in endless ways, the least of which is mentioned in this piece.

With an extra mile of effort, Egypt"s regime could probably almost fully undermine the freedom of speech, but this would also mean restricting internet access, and therefore detaching Egypt from the world politically, economically and socially.

And whereas the assault on free press may lower the complaining and criticising voices in Egypt, it does absolutely nothing to resolve the epidemic social, economic and political illnesses of the country, which will eventually burst into something no one wants to see.

 

Ibrahim El Houdaiby is a columnist for the Muslim Brotherhood"s English language website, IkhwanWeb.com


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