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June 11, 2014

Freedom of Expression Under Attack In Egypt

By Eric Eikenberry

Bassem Youssef’s decision to end “El Bernameg”—his weekly satirical take on Egyptian politics and society widely watched in the Arab world—reflects the murky understanding of the limits of expression in the region’s most populous nation at the start of the Sisi era. The satirist, who had previously weathered cancellation and an arrest, spoke to the Egyptian media last week about his safety, saying his show “‘doesn’t have a space.’” According to Variety, a spokesperson from “El Bernameg” cable host MBC was equally cryptic citing “'unsurmountable pressure from all sides.'”

Youssef’s case suggest a return to what appear to be pre-2011 norms in Egypt, when the fear of state sanctions pushed many journalists, writers, and artists to curb their expression before someone else did.

In his inaugural address on June 8th, President Sisi promised an Egypt “‘where our differences are enriching and diversifying.’” Yet the state machinery he oversees appears poised to stamp out any dissent. Last week also saw renewed interest in the imprisonment of hunger-striking Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah al-Shami, whose detention has been extended on several occasions even as authorities stall on setting a hearing in court. Shami was arrested while covering the deadly dispersal of pro-Morsi supporters by security forces at Rabaa al-Adawiya last August. For other journalists, the message is clear: if we’re willing to let him starve without a court date, we’ll do the same for you.

Members of the Egyptian press are not the only ones harmed by state- or self-imposed censorship; artists and musicians face a crackdown of their own. Street art containing charged social and political messages exploded in post-revolutionary Egypt but now falls under a new ban.

Six decades of authoritarian rule have left Sisi and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces a censoring vehicle in need of only a brief tune-up before re-ignition. Law 430/1955, from the early days of the Nasser era, prohibits recording or distributing audiovisual works without a permit in order to “protect the public order, public morals, and the higher interests of the state.” According to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, an Egyptian rights group, this law was the foundation for a host of regulations which eventually required artists across a number of mediums to navigate a byzantine system of censors and permits.

The vagueness of these laws, along with the ever-present coercive threat emanating from the Ministry of Interior, will likely push underground the burgeoning artistic scene, which has been driving the nation’s democratic spirit even as politicians of various stripes have worked to prevent its true implementation. In coming years, art that could inspire the many will be seen and heard by the few, especially if the state is able to institute a secretive and wide-ranging social media surveillance program, as outlined in a document recently leaked from the Ministry of Interior. While many artists have vowed to continue their work in the face of oppression, many others will decide that their right to self-expression is not worth the jail time.

A little over a month ago, Secretary of State John Kerry said that, despite disturbing developments within the court system (one way to refer to mass death sentences), Egypt “has made progress in its democratic transition.” As Egyptian artists and journalists know, this simply isn't true; maybe new U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Stephen Beecroft will say so plainly. The honesty of Bassem Youssef and others like him deserves an equally honest U.S. acknowledgment of reality.