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Egypt Struggles to Define 'Free Speech'

  • Elizabeth Arrott

From online activism to protests in the street, Egyptians have exercised their right to free speech over the past two years in ways unimaginable even in the recent past.

But novelist Alaa el-Aswany believes that sense of freedom is illusory, with the government of President Mohamed Morsi pursuing its own agenda.

"The formula is the following: you write whatever you want, I'm going to do whatever I want," says el-Aswany.

He believes the current leadership has cracked down even more than ex-president Hosni Mubarak.

"Mr. Morsi brought about 10 writers to the court who were accused of insulting the president. He did that in like four months, six months," el-Aswany says. "Mubarak, in 30 years, he did that three times."

It's not just insults to political leaders that prompt a reaction. A U.S.-made video impugning Islam's Prophet Muhammad set off an attack on the American Embassy and brought death sentences, in absentia, for the Egyptians who made it.

An Islamist view of free speech can differ dramatically from the concept embraced in the West.

Safwat al-Ghani, of Gama'a Islamiya, says there is a different understanding of freedom. He favors freedom which is controlled by “respect for sacredness and the conventions of Islam.”

That view has wide support in this deeply religious country. But for many, protection for political figures is another matter.

Political satirist Bassem al-Youssef is one of Egypt's most popular comedians, but prosecutors don't find his mocking of the president so amusing.

Yet the investigation backfired. The spotlight turned on the prosecutors, and after much public ridicule, they dropped their case.

Publisher Rania al-Malki says the government needs to ease up. "Once you become the ruling administration, you've got to have more tolerance for people like Bassem Youssef."

But while she sees free speech flourishing now, she's concerned about the undefined future, especially in laws likely to be drafted through the prism of Islamism.

"We have a situation here where the constitution has mandated the creation of two new bodies to regulate the media," al-Malki says. "But we have no clue what that is going to entail."

Across the region, post-revolution states are redefining the rights and freedoms of their citizens. As the Arab world's most populous nation, Egypt might set the standard that others will follow.

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