CAIRO -- Amir Salem is all too familiar with Egypt’s long-standing laws against insulting the government, blasphemy and plotting to overthrow the government. A lawyer with four decades of political activism behind him, he faced those charges under the presidencies of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. But now, as he contemplates new charges under Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, it feels more personal, he said.
Facing prison this time for calling a leading judge “stupid” on a television talk show, he notes that his prosecutor is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive organization through which Morsi ascended to power. So are the judges. Members of the Brotherhood follow him when he leaves his house, he said, all for crimes that were supposed to disappear under a democratic state.
“They don’t deal with us as people who have different political ideas. You feel you are being prosecuted personally,” Salem said.
Critics charge that the Morsi administration’s use of laws that were in force when Mubarak was president to prosecute opponents now is an assault on the goals of the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak and led eventually to Morsi’s presidency. Freedom of speech, assembly and association, they say, are all being challenged by the current administration, which will mark the first anniversary of its time in power at the end of the month.
The Morsi government fears such freedoms could “lead to the gradual escalation that led to the overthrow of Mubarak,” said Hossam Bahgat, the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an advocacy group.
On Monday, a Cairo court handed down the first conviction of a journalist for insulting the president. Ahmed Doma, a fierce critic of the Muslim Brotherhood, was sentenced to six months in prison or a $714 fine for calling Morsi a “killer” in a phone interview for a television program.
There are many other cases pending. In January, Gamal Eid, the executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, reported that there had been four times as many charges of insulting the president filed in Morsi’s first 200 days in office than in Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
The defendants included scores of journalists writing for opposition newspapers, activists who carried women’s lingerie in a protest in front of the home of the interior minister and, perhaps most infamously, Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s Jon Stewart, who mocks the presidency weekly on his comedic news roundup show, “The Program.”
“We didn’t insult the president. We presented our views in a peaceful way,” said Mohammed Saad Gahin, a lawyer for the April 6th Youth Movement, whose members brandished women’s underwear outside Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim’s house to protest what they said was his feckless treatment of police abuse. Five members were charged with blasphemy, disturbing the peace and insulting the regime.
“It was our bad luck the minister of interior was standing in the front door,” Gahin said.
With no legislature, Morsi has the authority to change the laws or at a minimum urge his prosecutors not to press charges in such cases. Instead, the government has proceeded with prosecutions. Last week, it showed it has no compunction against reinitiating Mubarak-era legislation, proposing a new law on restricting so-called nongovernment organizations’ work in Egypt that’s similar to what existed before. The new law would make it harder for foreign-based organizations to monitor elections and government performance.