By Omar Sabh POLS SENIOR
A few weeks ago, Professor Timothy Garton Ash from Oxford University paid the American University in Cairo a visit. He introduced a project that his team and him have been working on called “the Free Speech Debate.”
The initiative is a website (freespeechdebate.com) comprised of ten principles on freedom of speech and expression, and the basic tenants that accompany them. The principles offer a way to challenge impediments that hinder or curtail free speech through a global dialogue characterized by respect, civility and a desire to liberate human creativity. In addition to the ten fundamental principles that are open to criticism and additions, there are a number of case studies and articles that offer a glaring insight into the hurdles free speech encounters in today’s interconnected world. The website is as holistic as it can be in presenting itself as a platform for a constructive debate on free speech and the manner by which ‘we’ as human beings within this interconnected world can come to live with difference, speak openly about it and use our different cultural dialectics to challenge the barriers that are imposed on us by law (for democratic societies can fail at free speech too), cultural norms, or even worse, the State.
Amongst all these principles, one stands out as epitomizing a problem revolutionary Egypt faces today; it is a problem that we have been exposed to in our modern history since the inception of the military regime in 1952. The tenth principle states, “we must be free to challenge all limits to free expression justified on such grounds as national security, public order and morality.” These ‘grounds’ are very much alive in Egypt.
Egyptians live in a state of affairs (governance and social order) that regards information as dangerous, liable to cause subversion to state sponsored rhetoric and potentially destructive to the status- quo. However, by challenging this official discourse we catalyze the battle on the front of freedom of expression in the Egyptian regime. Egyptians need to be free not just to impart, but receive information to build an atmosphere of civic engagement and public scrutiny. To the Egyptian Armed Forces, this sounds like nails on a chalkboard.
The Egyptian Military State is a de facto and de jure state. It sees the emancipation of discussions on political economy and history, to say the least, as potential threats to its monstrous hold over its power base- the economic empire that it has at its helm. If these discussions don’t conform to the nationalist patriotic discourse, then legally broad provisions will penalize those who dare speak against the prevailing economic and political taboos.
The legal system is embedded with laws that punish people who speak out against the military establishment, which is their perceived version of public order and morality. These static taboos recur perennially in the Egyptian Penal Code. What is worse yet remains in the type of ‘free discussion’ the SCAF wants to promote, one that respects the status quo and doesn’t seriously challenge their ‘ordre publique’. Moreover, those who are in the SCAF allege to know best, in a father son relationship model, what this elusive public order is, and are in a position that permits them to define and manipulate it.
Case in point, on military matters, the Egyptian penal code, article 85 subsection 3: “defense secrets include: ‘news and information related to the armed forces, formations, movements, equipment, food supply, its members, and generally all that would incur prejudice to the military and strategic affairs unless written permission of the General Command of the armed forces is given to publish.”
Article 184 is a serious bone of contention; it stipulates that “insulting or defaming parliament’s lower or upper house, the military, the courts, the authorities and the general interests” is liable to imprisonment (without mention of the term of the sentence) and a fine between five to ten thousand Egyptian Pounds. Disregarding the fact that there is the word “authorities” flagrantly thrown into the legal clause, we come to the conclusion that we live in a military and patriarchal state that is not conducive to any sort of public debate on most matters that would allow Egypt to flourish and develop.
Why should the military’s “food supply” or “its members” be an issue of national security in times of peace? Does the stability of Egypt depend on the psychological wellbeing of SCAF’s members from criticism, or rather its citizens? Why would the investigation of budget sheets of military enterprises producing consumer goods, or working conditions in macaroni and bottled water factories, be considered a threat to national security? The questions are many but the answer is simple.
The exercise of freedom of speech and the desire to participate in the policy making process of the country may be subject to restriction on the grounds of national security if a legitimate explanation is given to prove imminent threat or danger. A legitimate threat means that the government, or SCAF in this scenario, can demonstrate on legal grounds who is threatening us, why this threat is considered to be so, and enlighten the people as to how long restrictions will be in place. The burden of this demonstration lies ultimately with them. Furthermore, it is the people’s right to demand justifications for the curtailment of their inherent rights, provided that the law is unambiguous on what a ‘legitimate’ threat is and would be readily accessible to all. Incidentally, none of those restrictions are justifiable when it comes to most of the armed forces’ economic enterprises (E.g. Land monopolies, factories for consumer goods, construction industries, port-facilities, etc.). They are, according to Egyptian Military expert and scholar Robert Springborg, “not subject to financial oversight by the Central Auditing Organization.”
There is corroborative evidence, by military historians and economists such as Robert Springborg, Khaled Fahmy and Zeinab Abu El Magd, which allows us to fathom the extent of the Military’s vast monopoly over Egypt’s resources. Moreover, in the mind of a general, whatever is done with those resources and commercial enterprises is none of the Egyptian citizen’s concern or speculation. In historical matters, much of the Egyptian archives are controlled by this military ethos; in fact, most of Egypt’s modern historiography, generally concerning military episodes, is written through the lens of British and Israeli archives, not Egypt’s own.
The point is not to make a polemical argument around the terms of freedom of expression and national security. To proceed in that fashion, it can be mentioned that there is a penultimate international legal document called the Johannesburg Principles that elaborates how freedom of expression should be regulated in light of national security. However, doing so would further estrange us from our local battle. While these principles may serve as a yardstick to measure how far or close we are from achieving victory, they cannot serve as a basis of argumentation against the military junta; only citizen based initiatives and broad consensus over civic engagement can.
‘We’, Egyptian citizens, must be allowed to construct a culture of criticism over the policies and politics of how our country is run; exclusion from such an undertaking would aggravate rather than improve socio-economic and political conditions. This culture would be fostered by academic, scientific and artistic professions, and rendered more potent by a courageous and hard-hitting media environment. The powers of the military censor can only go so far if there is considerable pressure by concerned citizens and the media to open up all of their taboos to public scrutiny and debate.
Ideally then, the goal would be to convince Egypt’s generals to relinquish their hold over Egypt’s progress and heritage by sending them the message that it is because ‘we’ Egyptian citizens care about national security and the development of Egypt, that we want to be able to open their information monopoly on the economy, politics and heritage to debate and public scrutiny- and not be denounced as foreign agents in the process.
The phrase “down with military rule” does not just embody a desire for justice and transparency over what the generals have perpetrated during the transitional phase, it also epitomizes a whole paradigm of demands that would existentially question all that had prevailed in Egypt before January 25. Since politics is the relationship between ruler and ruled, all issues pertaining to the lives of the people are up for debate and criticism, granting people the right to participate in the decision making process of Egypt, rebel when they are not included and consequently, demand structural change.
“Egyptians must cease to believe that politics are the special field of the ruler,” said Al Tahtawi in the 1850’s. This country is not SCAF’s; it’s ours, and all decisions made concerning its development and progress are ours as well. The culture of obedience and subservience to authority is rampant and embedded in all aspects of life, politics, family, society and religion. By breaking free from this hierarchical absoluteness, the revolution’s Geist would be proud; Egypt would never be the same again.