Dissent still under attack in post-Mubarak Egypt

By Diana Eltahawy, Egypt Researcher at Amnesty International

While the world is celebrating the 20th World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, the crackdown on freedom of speech and dissent continues unabated in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Instead of drawing from the lessons of the fallen President, Hosni Mubarak, and accepting criticism and opposition as a healthy and natural outcome of the “25 January Revolution”, Egyptian authorities are lashing out against critics. Reminiscent of the past, the official discourse seeks to discredit opponents as being “thugs” and playing into the hands of Egypt’s enemies conspiring to destroy the country.

In recent months, there has been a notable increase in judicial harassment of opposition activists, bloggers, comedians, protesters, and others. News about fresh charges of insulting President Mohamed Morsi or other officials, or of “defaming” religion – as well as sweeping arrests of opposition protesters – are now the norm.

The government claims that it is not behind most complaints, brought by “concerned” citizens whose sensibilities are offended by others insulting the President or “heavenly religions”. What the authorities fail to mention is that it is up to the public prosecution to drop the complaints or refer cases to trial.

The latest opposition activist to be swept up is 24-year-old Ahmed Douma. On 30 April, he went to the office of the public prosecution in Tanta, 90km north of Cairo, for questioning in relation to charges of insulting the President and spreading false news. The charges are based on his appearance on a television programme on 25 February describing President Morsi as a “killer” for his alleged role in killing opposition protesters. Ahmed Douma was taken away from the prosecution’s office in an armoured vehicle without being given the chance to inform his lawyers and wife that he was being detained. They were not told of his exact whereabouts until one of his lawyers went back to the prosecution’s office in Tanta on 2 May to inquire about his fate. This violates Egypt’s laws, not to mention international standards.

On 4 May, blogger Ahmed Anwar and opposition activist Hassan Mostafa are facing trial in two separate cases, which similarly attempt to punish and silence government critics. Ahmed Anwar is facing trial on charges of “insulting the Ministry of Interior” for posting a comical video online, in which he pokes fun at the police forces. Commenting on his predicament, Ahmed Anwar told Amnesty International: “It’s ironic that 3 May is World Press Freedom Day and I’m facing trial the next day just for posting a video.” Hassan Mostafa, who was previously detained during Mubarak’s rule in relation to protests against emergency laws, has been sentenced to two years in prison on charges of insulting and allegedly slapping a public prosecutor on 12 March in a case marred by procedural irregularities and the refusal of the court to hear any defence witness. His appeal hearing will take place in Alexandria on 4 May.

Some of the tactics used by the Egyptian authorities bring to light how little has changed since the fall of President Mubarak in early 2011. Lawyers told Amnesty International that their 16-year-old client was taken from his home at dawn on 25 April by a group of men – some wearing civilian clothes – without explaining to his distraught mother where they would take him and why he was being arrested. Thirty-six hours passed before he was referred to the State Security Emergency Prosecution – another remnant of the old government – a flagrant violation of the Egyptian Code of Criminal Procedure. He is accused of belonging to the Black Block group, which allegedly condones a violent response against state violence. According to his lawyers, despite his age, he has been held with adults and beaten in custody.

Against the backdrop of these human rights violations, the authorities are attempting to further suffocate civil society, including human rights NGOs that played a crucial role in reporting state abuses before, during and after the “25 January Revolution”. The ruling Freedom and Justice Party is trying to push legislation through the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of parliament, which risks to severely impede the ability of independent NGOs, including internationals ones, to carry out their work documenting and denouncing human rights violations.

In another blow to freedom of expression and information, Egypt’s leading English-language newspaper, Egypt Independent, has been shut down by its parent company’s new CEO, who held a similar position in Egypt’s leading state paper Al Ahram at the end of Mubarak’s rule. Its final issue came out online on 24 April after being banned from going to press.

President Morsi’s government seems to have forgotten that it was precisely freedom of expression and dissent that facilitated its ascent to power. However, the wall of fear has been broken long ago and the government’s attempts to silence opposing voices have triggered the opposite effect, leading to further condemnation at home and abroad.

Read more:More face charges in Egypt’s escalating crackdown on free speech and dissent (News story, 3 April 2013)