Do Egyptians Have the Right to Free Speech?

Absolutely. As long as they don’t criticize the president.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Egyptian protests.

Thousands chant anti-government slogans during a massive rally in Tahrir Square. Click image to expand.
Protesters chant anti-government slogans during a massive rally in Tahrir Square February 1, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt

The fate of Hosni Mubarak’s government now seems to hinge on the military, and both sides are watching to see how the army handles protesters. On Tuesday night, demonstrators rejoiced as a uniformed spokesman vowed that the military would not use force, because “freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.” Does Egypt’s constitution make that guarantee?

Yes. Article 47 of the Egyptian constitution states: “Freedom of opinion is guaranteed. Every individual has the right to express his opinion and to publicize it verbally or in writing or by photography or by other means within the limits of the law.” As in many countries, however, there is a disconnect between paper freedoms and practical freedoms. There are unwritten rules about how much criticism the government will tolerate. When dissidents step across these red lines, President Mubarak’s administration has employed a variety of tactics—some legal, others not so much—to silence them.

Until the chaos of the last few days, opposition figures in Egypt knew that they could get away with criticizing government policies and even certain ministers, but that direct attacks on Mubarak or his family were verboten. When prominent dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who had already infuriated the regime by documenting widespread election fraud, publicly questioned Mubarak’s monarchical plan to hand off power to his son, he was charged with defaming Egypt in 2000. Egypt’s reasonably independent judicial system overturned his conviction, but he was charged with the same crime, convicted, and sentenced in absentia in 2008.

Some dissidents don’t even get the courtesy of a trial. Egypt’s Emergency Law—the country has officially been in a state of emergency since Anwar Sadat’s 1981 assassination—allows the government to detain citizens without charge for 30 days. What’s more: The Interior Ministry can renew the detention repeatedly with little or no explanation. In 2009, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights reported 71 cases of arbitrary detention, many of which were politically motivated. (The situation hasn’t received all that much attention, possibly because many of victims are members of the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist organizations, rather than democracy activists.)

The government’s tactics aren’t limited to prosecution of individuals. Opposition political parties, opposition newspapers, and NGOs cannot operate in Egypt without first obtaining a license from the government. These organizations know that they can only continue in good standing if they treat Mubarak with kid gloves. Excessive criticism can result in a revoked license, or criminal charges for bureaucratic infractions. (In addition to the charge of defaming Egypt, Saad Ibrahim was accused of technical violations of the NGO law.)

The use of licensing to silence critics worked pretty well, until the Internet came along. Unlike newspapers, opposition bloggers don’t need the government’s approval. Bloggers have posted evidence of government torture, criticized Islam, and otherwise gone farther than the comparatively timid opposition parties ever would have in the 1990s. The regime has used the emergency law to imprison a number of the bloggers, but each case has led to an embarrassing international outcry.

When all else fails, there’s always old-school thuggery. Journalists and dissidents have accused the Mubarak regime of sending goons to abduct, assault, and sometimes abandon them in the middle of the desert.

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Explainer thanks Nathan J. Brown of George Washington University, Tamir Moustafa, author of The Struggle for Constitutional Power: Law, Politics, and Economic Development in Egypt, and Kristen A. Stilt of Northwestern University.

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