The fight for freedom of expression has been a key part of the battle for rights in Egypt.
As the January 25 revolution unfolded, debates about the right to information and knowledge, academic freedoms, digital freedoms and freedom of expression heightened. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) has been actively involved in articulating these debates.
In this conversation, lawyer Emad Mubarak — executive director of AFTE, talks about the battle for freedom of expression.
Mada Masr: How did the January 25 revolution affect the space for freedom of expression in Egypt, and how has this changed since?
Emad Mubarak: In the past, one of the only spaces for young people to express their opinions was online. The January 25 revolution widened the possibility for new voices to be heard in other forums. However, I wonder if the space given to young people in mainstream media — by private satellite channels for example — actually reflects a belief in freedom of expression.
Such spaces have now largely disappeared. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently compared the media to an open faucet that needs to be sealed. Media entities have conformed to demands by the state and sought to justify its violations, and the ability of the state to portray civil society organizations in a negative light has consequently increased. It is in this context that the role of capital has increased. Remember when private channels attacked the state in the Brotherhood-era? Now, in contrast, the scene has transformed, and is being carefully monitored by the government.
Satellite channels volunteered to follow the status quo and not to host oppositional figures in favor of national consensus. This is not surprising, as private businesses often act out of personal interest, rather than a responsibility to present different perspectives, and the interests of many private channels are aligned with those of the state. There are exceptions, such as several independent electronic newspapers, but they are in the minority.
The streets have been restricted as a space for dissent through the government’s anti-protest law, and the situation now resembles that of pre-2011, in which the internet has again taken centre stage for freedom of expression.
MM: If there is sympathy from some media figures and wider society regarding the need to compromise on certain rights, how do you handle this in terms of promoting a need for freedom of expression?
EM: It is important to identify the reasons for this agreement, which are partly related to financial interests, but also to a state of fear caused by the Muslim Brotherhood. The dominant public opinion is that anything is acceptable as long as it helps get rid of the Brotherhood, without consideration for future consequences. The media helps propagate this message of hatred, to a point where everyone in society pays the price for it.
More importantly, we should understand the importance of talking about freedom of expression. This freedom does not aim to create a situation in which everyone agrees, but to defend opinions that are shocking to society. Of course, society is not going to accept many personal freedoms, but this will not prevent us from defending such rights.
Take the issue of insulting the Islamic religion as an example. This is something that is completely rejected by society to the point that vicious media campaigns are mounted against people who do so. The general approach is, “let’s get rid of these people.” This is where our role as an association for personal rights comes in. We tell society that this person is entitled to their opinions and to express themselves however they like, even if it insults Islam. In turn, people have the right to accept or reject these ideas and positions, and even to insult the person who says them – although this does not include incitement to violence.
There are many examples of ideas that have been rejected by societies through state, societal or self-censorship. I always see the latter as the worst kind, because it is internal. The state is explicit about its role, as is society in its traditions and customs. But we cannot do much about artists who censor themselves. This relates to the crisis of Egyptian intellectuals more generally.
Society, of course, rejects many of our ideas, but societies only evolve through the presentation of diverse and varied ideas. Preventing the presentation of ideas has never been the solution. Continued censorship and the prevention of rights and ideas will make this society a dead one that does not evolve or interact. Presenting novel and diverse ideas and giving citizens the right to choose whether to accept or reject them will enable us to evolve.
MM: Have we already reached this state of stagnation in your opinion?
EM: There is no authority in the world that is completely capable of preventing new or shocking ideas, although authorities can curtail rights and impose strict censorship measures.
The prime minister decided to ban the movie “Halawet Roh.” Who is he to ban films? This violates the Constitution and the law. In the end, the courts ruled that the movie be allowed. This shows that the state is not always successful in its attempts to censor. There will always be artists who turn to independent cinema instead of going through the General Directorate for the Censorship of Artistic Works.
The state wins some battles and we win others. Is this going to continue, or is it going to get worse? Everything indicates it will get worse and that the state is not ready to take responsibility for protecting freedom of expression. There is no political will to do so, as the government is afraid of creating space for free speech. Most authorities that do so play a number of roles anyway, through the security apparatus and media.
MM: The human rights movement is often criticized for not understanding priorities, as it is expected to focus on the primary needs of society such as economic rights including poverty and employment. How do you respond to this?
EM: This is nonsense. Why are we, civil society, expected to take up the role of the state, whose role it is to deal with poverty? Those who support this perspective see the role of civil society only as developmental. This is disastrous, because the duties of civil society are much more varied.
There are many organizations that work on development and assist the state in this crisis. There are also organizations that work on the protection of rights, whether economic, social, civil or political. The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, for example, played a role in securing the maximum and minimum wage. This does not fall under development per se, but is a real gain for civil society. This is rights work; I want to eat and I also want my freedom. The two elements are like water and air. Having economic and social rights, such as health and education, does not mean that I will be satisfied. As long as I am prevented from expressing my thoughts, I will just be someone who exists.
The two are tied. For example, one cannot demonstrate against a physical problem in a specific place without freedom of expression. This is why the argument that rights work takes funds away from more concrete issues in local communities is ridiculous.
MM: Why does the state want to restrict the work of civil society groups?
EM: Civil society organizations have worked in the field of rights and freedoms for many years and the questioning of our work is not new. We have, however, been periodically invited to participate in dialogue regarding legislation. Why does the state do this and criticize our role at the same time?
Casting civil society organizations in a negative light, particularly querying the receipt of foreign funds, serves a particular agenda. Money from the same sources is often welcomed for development work, so it is not about the money. The contradiction is clear.
Part of our role is to monitor the extent to which the state delivers on the promises it makes internationally regarding the protection of the rights and freedoms of its citizens. The government is wary of this role and many rights have been suppressed recently under the rhetoric of the “war on terrorism.”
MM: The on-going conflict between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood has been played out on university campuses. How does this affect your work on academic freedoms?
EM: The real problem with what is happening in universities is the belief on the part of the state and some academics that the solution to student violence is more violence. No real plan exists to deal with the situation, and one is not being formulated, except the training of more campus security.
The university is an important space for free thought. It is supposed to be a space that allows for the presentation of different ideas concerning religion, politics or even sex, including those that clash with customs and traditions.
The university is a microcosm of Egyptian society, and the state deals with it in the same manner. Universities are more like prisons now, or military facilities.
We are the only rights organization working on this issue, and it is exhausting. There are around 23 state universities, in addition to the private universities, and we work with a group of around three million students. There are violations, demonstrations and violent incidents to be documented.
Some students we have worked with have experienced violations and even imprisonment, and this is a lot of pressure for our organization to deal with. We need to defend these students as well as the rest of the student body.
At one point, we were accused of being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, because we defend Brotherhood-affiliated students. Although, we’ve also faced accusations from the Muslim Brotherhood, because we defend students with opinions they find shocking.
MM: Do you see the work of human rights organizations as being in conflict with society?
EM: This depends on the spaces in which rights organizations work. Those who work in the fields of personal freedoms and freedom of religion are already in conflict with the state and society. Those who work on freedom of expression are in conflict with the state and some aspects of society. Those working in economic and social rights do not largely conflict with society, but more with the state.
We have a society that is strongly governed by customs and traditions. When we go to court for cases such as those dealing with insults to religion, many lawyers detest us for defending someone they perceive to be an atheist or unbeliever.
This is different to our work on health, as most people accept this is an area for improvement. But society at large is not accepting of our support for LGBT people, for example, which is something the state exploits and uses against us.
Rights organizations do not have the liberty of only working on cases that society agrees with.
MM: You talk a lot about artistic freedom in Egypt. How do you see this changing in the future?
EM: We don’t have an authority that protects artists. We also have an older generation of intellectuals who are aligned with the state. If we want to see progress in arts and culture, it has to come from Egyptian youth.
If the state wants to progress, it should cease all censorship of films and restrict its role to assigning age provisions to them. The very existence of a ministry for culture is catastrophic, as it limits the spirit of freedom in the arts. For example, we now have a ministry that bans movies due to historical inaccuracies. Why not screen the film and leave writers and critics to talk about the film’s historical inaccuracies? The authorities don’t understand people will watch such films online anyway.
The Ministry of Culture should also stop controlling the cultural palaces, open them up to the public and allow the people to make use of them.
There is a strong element of self-censorship practiced in the arts. Therefore change must come from the top and the bottom.
MM: What are the major successes and failures of the rights movement in the last few years?
EM: There are small wins in terms of the legal battles we fight. However, we have failed to demonstrate to wider society the importance of the role we play, and to prove that our existence is beneficial and not harmful.
Civil society has always been attacked, but it feels different this time. Regarding the Rabea massacre for example, there were certain groups claiming the dispersal was conducted in a professional manner that conformed to international standards, as though there are standards for murder.
Civil society groups must plan and state their priorities for the future and evaluate the work done in the past.
MM: Why have civil society groups not communicated more effectively with society at large?
EM: In 2011 and 12, we were given space to present our work. Now, much of that space has gone, and things are harder than they were under Mubarak. Civil society organizations, for example, are not allowed to organize large press conferences.
Part of the problem though is our approach, performance and priorities. All those working in civil society need to meet and discuss these issues in light of the current threat to our existence. Think about all those who have left. These challenges are not easy, but we must confront them.
This is part of a series of interviews by Mada Masr with human rights workers in Egypt.