Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Is Egypt targeting bloggers?

Now that detained blogger Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam has been freed, Egyptian authorities are using his release to claim that there's freedom of expression in the country. The World, a National Public Radio news program, took a look at the issue in its Monday's broadcast. Here's the report.

I applaud the news attention to this issue. I think the report exposes the fallacy of the Egyptian government claims that there is no need for concern because there is a plethera of viewpoints being expressed in Egypt. I was touched by Alaa's recollection of a security official looking at his blog with him prior to his release. A writer always appreciates knowing he has an audience!

But there is reason for concern. The variety of opinions in Egypt is historical. Egypt is a society with a long and strong history of civil society and a vigorous civil discussion. That is part of the background to this issue. Systemmatically, the Egyptian government has tried to pare away that history, using first State of Emergency powers and then adding to that a series of expanded powers passed by the parliament. I date the latest effort to 1996 with the first of a series of press laws that put journalists and human rights defenders at risk. That was followed by crackdown on professional societies coming under the control of Muslim Brothers. That was followed by a 1999 NGO law that held the threat of government action against any NGO at any time.

The point is even is all the jailed bloggers have been freed, there's little reason to feel confident. The laws and the precedents are there for the government to act to curtail anyone's freedom of speech at any time. And the Egyptian government has shown time and time again that if it has the power to do something, it will do it.

No, the only basis on which to judge whether Egypt has freedom of expression is the statutory ability of the government to silence critics. When the Mubarak regime ends the State of Emergency and abolish articles of the penal code and other legislation that, in violation of international standards, allows it to detain people for their free speech, when all that power is taken away, then that claim can be made. The courage and strength and speech of political opponents in Egypt is impressive; the fact that they don't have the legal right to such speech is not.


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