The struggle for freedom of expression in the ‘new Egypt’

Arriving at Cairo airport earlier this week, the first time I had been to the country since the ’25 January Revolution’, I got what seemed to be an early sign that some things have changed.

Our bags were opened at customs and contained a large amount of Amnesty International Arabic language materials on human rights in Egypt- reports, press releases and leaflets documenting serious abuses, both by the former government and more recently since Mubarak stepped down.

In the old days this could have meant several hours of questioning, and probably the confiscation of the material. The day before my arrival another member of our team had spent nearly two hours being questioned at immigration about the purpose of her trip.
But in this case, the officer checked with his superior, who took one look at the papers and simply waved us through.

This is an exciting time to have come to the region for my first visit as Secretary General. Meeting Egyptian officials and citizens, I am struck by the sense of possibilities and the willingness to challenge entrenched views.

Until this year Egyptians had been expected to accept their lot quietly – political repression, a relentless culture of torture and abuse, economic inequality – and be grateful for it. Those who challenged the system could be punished with “administrative detention” orders – which allowed the authorities to hold them without charge or trial for years – and many thousands were subjected to torture and ill treatment.

That is no longer something that the Egyptians I have met will tolerate. They want real change, and they have many different ideas of how it should be achieved.

Political debate and discussion is everywhere with competing proposals for how to tackle Egypt’s deep-rooted challenges. Transformative events like January 25th and the weeks that followed do not come with easy to follow instructions for what next. The protesters that brought down Mubarak did not have one single manifesto for change. So the arguments about what should come first are in full force.

Should the struggle for political freedoms mean that efforts to reform the economy to better provide for the 40% of the country’s population that live below the international poverty line have to be delayed? How should the rise of voices espousing religious identity – many of which were severely suppressed under Mubarak – be reconciled with the “one people” aspirations of the protesters?

At a meeting Amnesty International hosted this week with local human rights groups the argument was impassioned and views were often very divided. But all agreed on one thing: it was good to be able to debate and argue like this.

But not everyone appreciates the new spirit of free speaking. One Egyptian journalist asked me during an interview “don’t you think that the fact that all our political parties disagree so much is causing instability?” I reminded her that Egyptians had made very clear that they had had quite enough of having one view forced upon them for three decades.

Being prepared to speak freely also means accepting criticism; a new experience for many institutions in Egypt.

The armed forces, who were praised by much of the population for not firing on protesters at the time of Mubarak’s fall and are now in effective charge of the country, have until now dealt particularly badly with being criticised. This is particularly striking since they continue to enjoy relatively high popularity among the Egyptian people.

Rather than answering their critics’ points in a transparent manner, they have attempted to silence their critics, calling in journalists and bloggers and threatening with military prosecution should they continue to publicly speak against the army.

In a deeply worrying trend, the authorities appear to be trying to criminalise dissent – the new ‘Law No.34’ makes any strike or demonstration that “prevents or delays or obstructs from working any state institution or public authority or a public or private workplace” illegal.

There is simply no justification for this move, particularly ahead of elections in September. Peaceful protest is how Egyptians started to bring about change earlier this year.

While Egyptians want and are entitled to expect that law and order will be maintained, measures like this – and the 30 year old state of emergency which despite promises to abolish it remains in place – are unnecessary and do nothing to rebuild the trust of Egypt’s institutions.

As they try to make real their aspirations for a fairer, more just society, the argument and debate must be allowed to continue without Egyptians fearing military trials or arbitrary detention. This is the only way real change will be delivered.