Contradictions in law and practice

It is an anomaly of Egyptian media that, despite layers of law and regulation, there is no effective protection of rights and reputations for those whom the government does not wish to defend. Anomalies like this are rife. Rainy M.K. Aly shows in his chapter how prohibitions embedded in contemporary laws have been passed down through the decades, such as those designed to safeguard a vaguely defined “public morality” or punish any act deemed to defame the “reputation of Egypt.” The latter taboo leads to incongruities such as occurred in 2019 when Nabila Makram, Egyptian Minister for Immigration and Expatriate Affairs, made a throat- slitting gesture while telling Egyptians in Canada that anyone who said anything bad about Egypt would be “cut” (Daragahi, 2019). Neither she nor those members of her audience who laughed in response appeared to consider the episode’s negative impact on the country’s image, or acknowledge the extent to which reputational concerns stoked up domestically were in conflict with positive attention paid at home and abroad to cutting-edge Egyptian cultural output. For example, Mohamed Diab’s films 678 (2010) and Eshtebak (Clash, 2016) received international acclaim but were accused at home of distorting Egypt’s reputation. Ahmad Naji’s novel Istikhdam al-Hayat (Using Life), praised abroad, got its author a two-year jail sentence in 2016 for “violating public modesty.” A conference held in the Egyptian town of Fayyoum after the sentence was imposed, entitled “Freedom ot thought and creation between a constitution that ennobles it and a law that criminalises it” (Chitti, 2019, p. 113), highlighted a further contradiction in the country’s laws on media and culture.

With Egypt sliding down the Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF) World Press Freedom Index to 163rd out of 180 in 2019, ahead only of countries like Saudi Arabia, China, and North Korea (RSF, 2019), and with 30 journalists in jail in 2020, many ot them detained for up to two years without trial (RSF, 2020), the mismatch is striking between guarantees enshrined in Egypt’s 2014 Constitution and penalties incurred in practice. Article 65 of the Constitution guarantees the right to express thoughts and opinions “verbally, in writing, through imagery, or by other means ot expression and publication.” Article 67 guarantees “freedom of artistic and literary creativity'” and promises state protection for artists, writers, and their productions. Yet the Constitution co-exists not only with a raft of repressive laws mentioned in the chapters by Tourya Guaaybess and Rasha Abdulla but also with the long-standing Emergency Law—a coexistence which puts into question any push for the “rule ot law” in countries where laws do not embody values of fairness or human dignity'. The Emergency Law places major curbs on expression, making citizens subject to censorship, arbitrary' arrest, and detention, and authorizing special security courts with judges appointed by the president to try civilians with no right of appeal.The law had its origins in the martial law imposed under British occupation and enforced during World War II, which was retained by the Free Officers in 1952 and renamed a “state of emergency” in 1958 (Brown, 2017). Reinstated from 1967 to 1980 and again in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, the state ot emergency was regularly' renewed until 2012, when it lapsed briefly'. Reintroduced in 2013, it became again subject to repeated renewals, first for northern Sinai and then tor the whole country from 2017, the eleventh being decreed in January 2020.

Despite its far-reaching impact, various quirks camouflage the way' the state of emergency crushes media and cultural activity. First is the anomaly of having a quasi-permanent Emergency

Law when such laws are supposed, by definition and under international treaties, to be temporary. Another, given the Egyptian parliament’s rubber-stamp status under Sisi, is the way repeated renewal of the law after 2017 flouted the spirit but not the letter of Article 154 ot the 2014 Constitution, which made a two-thirds vote in parliament mandatory for even a second renewal. Insights into this duality of the political system, where a few formal trappings of participatory institutions are retained in what is essentially a police state, rarely feature in foreign reporting on Egypt, because they cannot be conveyed with the simplicity and immediacy usually required of news (Sakr, 2010). At the same time, foreign correspondents themselves have been subject to draconian measures since 2015, including summary deportations affecting the US and United Kingdom (UK) national dailies, the New York Times, and The Times, while the Sisi government has boycotted and blocked the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The Association for Freedom ofThought and Expression (AFTE) drew attention in 2019 to the way key news reports about Egypt were being delayed or even withdrawn from foreign outlets because fear on the part ot both informants and correspondents often prevented the latter from getting beyond the official version of a story (AFTE 2019).

Failure by US and UK leaders to protest at the deportation and blocking of their own constituents further obscured the depth and severity of the media clampdown from public view. So limited was the response of governments—and, as Rasha Abdulla shows in her chapter, big social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter—to the dire situation of media and culture practitioners in Egypt that an opera house in the German city of Dresden awarded a medal to President Sisi in 2020 for bringing “hope and encouragement” to a “whole continent” (DPA, 2020), before being forced to revoke the award in the face of protest cancellations by German celebrities engaged to take part in the award ceremony. As the protest indicated, defenders ot free expression within international civil society were acutely aware of the realities facing their counterparts in Egypt, especially after Check Point Software Technologies provided evidence that the Sisi government was behind a sophisticated malware attack aimed at gaining access to the online communication ot journalists and activists (Check Point Research, 2019).

 
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