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.
The prosecutor’s office said that to change the freedom of expression laws would contribute to an already unstable state.
“Insulting the president means insulting Egypt,” said Mustafa A. Dowidar, the chief of public prosecution and a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office.
Dowidar cited recent controversies in the United States as justification for what’s happening here, saying, “Obama is doing this,” a reference to the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS and the Justice Department investigation of leaks to journalists working for the Associated Press and Fox News. “So why can’t we?”
“Freedom means responsibility. It doesn’t mean you can insult everyone and every time I can. That means chaos,” Dowidar said. “The idea of all democratic societies is protecting the institutions of the state. . . . I represent the people.”
Salem rejects this, saying Morsi is resurrecting a dictatorship. Restoring order is about security on the streets, not limiting what people can say about the regime. As if to prove his point, Salem exclaims: “Morsi is very stupid. His decisions are very stupid. They don’t understand that Egyptians are no longer afraid of power.”
The laws do little to settle the matter. Vaguely written 60-year-old laws are still on the books. Article 179 of the Egyptian criminal code says that anyone who insults the president through “distribution, leasing, pasting or displaying printed matter, manuscripts, drawings, advertisements, carved or engraved pictures, manual or photographic drawings, symbolic signs or other objects or pictures in general” faces detention. But the law doesn’t specify what constitutes an insult. Waving underwear apparently is covered.
In December the government enacted a new constitution that sought to protect individual freedoms, again through vaguely worded articles. Article 6, for example, reads, “The political system is based on the principles of democracy . . . the rule of law, and respect for human rights and freedoms, all as elaborated in the Constitution.”
The constitution goes on to contradict itself. Article 45 says that “every individual has the right to express an opinion and to disseminate it verbally, in writing or illustration, or by any other means of publication and expression.” But Article 31 says that “insulting or showing contempt toward any human being shall be prohibited.” Article 35 protects freedom of expression, and Article 43 protects freedom of religion, “but as regulated by law.”
With such ambiguity, it falls to judges to decide, and their rulings often oscillate between following the letter of the criminal code and the spirit of the uprising.
Salem said his three-judge panel laughed as they watched the video of his comments about Judge Ahmed Refaat, who led the courtroom during the trial of Mubarak last year on charges that he’d ordered a crackdown as president that led to deaths during the 18-day uprising that forced his resignation. Salem represented some of the survivors of those who were killed. Mubarak was convicted of failing to stop the killing, but not of ordering the killings. The case has since been set aside and a new trial is expected.
To be sure, there are more freedoms here since 2011. Youssef’s program, for example, would have been unimaginable under Mubarak, and calling any regime official a name on television was inconceivable, since in that era the state controlled all media.
But the new Egypt was supposed to lead to reforms, opponents argue.
“This is more catastrophic, because this tells me if Morsi is not interested in the laws that deal with human rights, he is like a dictator,” Gahin said.
Moreover, Gahin said that those arrested were put in some of Egypt’s most notorious prisons while waiting for the courts to set bail. That, he said, is a clear message: “They are trying to tell us we are the same as the terrorists by sending us to the worst prisons.”
Often, as in Salem’s case and that pressed against the demonstrators outside the interior minister’s house, prosecutors delay pressing charges. That puts the defendants in a legal limbo where they’re allowed to go free but the government may detain them at any point in the future, leaving them vulnerable to arrest if they do anything the government finds offensive.
“It is straight out of the Mubarak playbook,” said the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights’ Bahgat.
U.S. officials have struggled to strike a balance between recognizing change in post-Mubarak Egypt and condemning regression. On May 20, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell condemned Morsi’s use of criminal charges against people who arguably are expressing opinions.
“Such charges do not conform to Egypt’s international obligations, do not reflect international standards regarding freedom of expression and freedom of assembly – particularly in a democratic society – and represent a step backward for Egypt’s democratic transition,” Ventrell said. “We call on the government of Egypt to publicly speak out against this trend and to protect the essential freedoms of expression and assembly as it has publicly committed to do.”
A day later, however, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson struck a different tone in an interview with the newspaper Al Ahram: “It cannot be ignored that freedom of expression has improved in a number of ways under the new regime, exemplified by the media and the freedom to talk openly and publicly chastise political figures. Look at the press or any of the political talk shows on TV: Egyptians did not have such freedoms under Mubarak.”