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Egypt: What Will Morsi Mean for Free Speech?


Cairo’s Tahrir Square exploded in joyous revelry and fanfare on Sunday afternoon after Counsellor Farouk Sultan, the Head of the Elections Commission announced the results of the presidential run-off vote in a nationwide televised address. Counsellor Sultan named Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi the winner with 51.73 per cent of the vote and by a slim margin of 800,000 votes. The announcement ended days of speculation over the results of a vote that has polarised Egypt and accentuated a decades-old secularist/Islamist divide.

Supporters of Morsi’s opponent Ahmed Shafik meanwhile expressed their anger and shock at his defeat. Some insisted that “the result was incorrect” while others said they would pack and leave Egypt altogether. Most people in Shafik’s camp were secularists who had voted for the former regime man (the last prime minister under Mubarak) out of fear that Islamist rule would mean intolerance and the stifling of freedoms.

The victory of a conservative Islamist and long-time Muslim Brotherhood member has fuelled concerns about the rights of minorities and women, freedom of expression and possible restrictions on art and creativity.

The secularists’ fears are not totally baseless: In recent months, several lawsuits filed by Muslim hardliners against artists and a Coptic businessman have threatened to curtail free expression. Coptic business tycoon Naguib Sawiris was twice accused by ultra- conservative Islamists of “blasphemy and insulting Islam “after he posted a cartoon on Twitter of a bearded Mickey Mouse and a veiled Minnie. The courts dismissed the charges on both occasions on grounds that “the plaintiffs lacked legal standing”.

Meanwhile, comedian Adel Imam and several other artists who worked with him were charged with “showing contempt of religion” in three films made in the early nineties, including the 1994 film “The Terrorist” (in which Imam played the role of a Muslim fundamentalist). The ultra conservative lawyer who filed the lawsuit accused Imam of mocking Muslim symbols like the beard and the white robe or “gallabeya” traditionally worn by devout Muslims.

While the case against Imam was later dismissed, it did trigger an outpouring of anger from liberals and intellectuals who expressed fears that such conservatism could drag Egypt “back to the dark ages”. Many intellectuals, writers and artists worry that the sweeping tide of Islamism may lead to greater censorship of their work and curb creativity and free expression.

They have demanded that Egypt’s newly elected president make clear his position on freedom of speech and creativity.

“We want a promise from him that creativity won’t be judged on religious principles,” said secular writer Ahmed Al Khamisi. “We want him to pledge not to censor artists nor stifle their freedom to create.”

Activist Dalia Ziada has also expressed her concern that Morsi would “try to take actions against human rights and freedoms, by orders from God.”

While Morsi has not denied his intention to implement Islamic Sharia Law, reiterating in his campaign speeches that the “Qur’an is my constitution”, he has sought to allay the concerns of Egypt’s liberals by promising to protect freedoms and the rights of minorities and women. He has also withdrawn from the Muslim Brotherhood and pledged to appoint a Christian woman as Vice-President.

In his first televised speech after winning the election, he said. “Egypt is for all Egyptians; all of us are equals in terms of rights.”

He has also promised to fulfil the goals of the revolution including freedom, democracy and social justice.

Egypt’s military rulers have meanwhile declared themselves “the guardians of the revolution and protectors of a secular, democratic state council”. They recently introduced supplementary constitutional amendments that consolidate their grip on power. The amendments give the army sweeping legislative and budgetary powers including control over the drafting of the country’s new constitution. All this, while limiting the powers of the newly elected President dramatically.

With tight control from the military and all eyes closely watching him, Morsi is in for a tough time to prove his mettle. Revolutionary activists are monitoring his performance in his first 100 days in office through a new internet application dubbed “The Morsimeter”. They have also been piling pressure on him through continued protests in Tahrir, demanding that he wrest more powers from the military. Satisfying all political forces — the youth revolutionaries, the military authority and the Islamist groups who want Sharia law implemented, may be a near-impossible task. One thing is certain though: divorcing religion from politics will have to be a vital concession for Morsi to make if he wishes to win the support of the secularists who initiated the revolution.

Journalist Shahira Amin resigned from her post as deputy head of state-run Nile TV in February 2011. Read why she resigned from the “propaganda machine” here.  

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