Is It Still A Crime to Insult the Egyptian President? Should It Be?
One of the ways the regime sought symbolic control was through making it a crime to insult the president or his family.
Even during the period in the early 2000s when many of those who guage censorship felt the regime was allowing the press greater freedom to report on the failings of ministries and government agencies, the president, his wife and his sons were held sacrosanct. Criticize them and you would almost certainly find yourself in court. It was a crime under a 1996 law that’s still on the books.
There’s been a revolution, new elections, and a new government but no one has gotten around to repealing those laws yet. So the Egyptian Supreme State Security Court may be making a decision on whether insulting the president is allowable in the new Egypt.
On the carpet are three chief editors of private newspapers:
- Abdul Halim Qandil, Chief Editor of Sawt al-Umma [Voice of the Nation]
- Adel Hammouda, Chief Editor of Al-Fagr [Dawn] newspaper
- Islam Afifi, Chief Editor of Ad-Dustor [The Constitution]
Afifi was already arraigned August 23rd in the Giza Criminal Court, making him the first journalist to be officially tried since Mubarak’s ouster, although conspiracy-theorist and talk-show host Tawfiq Akasha was also recently charged. President Morsi used his legislative authority (for the first time) to void the clause in the 1996 press bill that allows journalists to be jailed while awaiting trial (Afifi’s trial is scheduled for Sept. 18). Morsi did NOT change the clause making it a crime to insult the president.
There’s certainly no question that Qandil was insulting. His article was headed, “The Stupid State and the Stupider President.” The editorial stated that the recent massacre in Rafah was an insult to the Egyptian army, and also to the Egyptian nation, and that the military command and the president should be held responsible for the stupidity of their decisions, which allowed it to happen.
Qandil told Al-Quds al-Arabi daily “I welcome the battles.” He said now is the time that the shape of the new Egypt will be decided and he’s pleased to be part of it.
The lawsuit was brought by Attorney Ahmed Hassan Laklouk, identified in press reports as a Muslim Brotherhood member, and Qandil has openly said the Brotherhood is behind this, wanting to force upon democratic Egypt the same constraints as the prior regime.
Al-Quds al-Arabi also reported that:
The guide of the Muslim Brotherhood group, Muhammad Mahdi Akef, said to Al-Quds al-Arabi that Egypt was nothing like those foreign states in which presidents are freely attacked. He added:“As Muslims and Arabs, we have our traditions and religion which require us to have morals and be respectful.”
The Ad-Dustour story, as I got it, is even stranger.
Ad-Dustour had written an article or editorial critical of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. A group of men supposedly from the Ministry of the Interior confiscated the issue.
However, the Chief Editor Islam Afifi and the Managing Editor Hassan Badih became suspicious of the fact that they were not informed of the confiscation in advance by the general prosecutor, as used to happen during the Mubarak era. They therefore took the unprecedented step of reprinting the issue, after adding headlines and a box on the fron page saying:
The Brothers’ group tried to confiscate Ad-Dustour and attacked the printing house yesterday. The group’s threats to liquidate the board director and the chief editor and to terrorize Ad-Dustour’s editor will not scare use. The group is practicing an unprecedented intellectual terrorism and a clear threat against the journalists, media people, and intellectuals. The newspaper is threatened of closing at any given time and the decision for that is ready.
The newspaper is printed at the press owned by Al-Gomhuriya. Although officers of the Interior Ministry showed up and tried to stop the reprinting, the state newspaper refused to stop the presses, citing a penalty clause in their contract and a failure of the Ministry to show a court order.
Ad-Dustour Managing Editor Hassan Badih told Kuwait’s Ar-Rai newspaper that “a number of Muslim Brothers youth have been amassing in front of the newspaper’s headquarters. I believe that this is a clear threatening message against the newspaper to force it to halt its criticism of the politics or the Brothers and Morsi.”