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Locating the Boundaries of Free Speech in Egypt

August 21, 2012

Tawfiq Akasha, whose show was canceled by Egyptian authorities. Of course it’s censorship–the question is, is it legitimate censorship? As the courts determine the answer to that question, they will continue to frame the boundaries of what will constitute free speech in the new Egypt.

It is a principle of linguistic anthropology that all communication depends on silences. Choosing what not to say is as important as what and how one articulates things, and will differ with context.

Censorship occurs when the boundaries of what is legally accepted as sayable and what is not are contested. What the boundaries of speech and other forms of expressive culture should be is being rethought in Egypt, and it is playing out in the courts.

The most recent example:  the television channel Al-Fara’een, owned by talk show host Tawfiq Akasha, was shut down August 9th by Egyptian state authorities, after the Freedom and Justice Party filed a lawsuit accusing Tawfiq of having encouraged people to attack President Mohamed Morsi.

Akasha has been a pro-military advocate fond of spinning conspiracy theories, such as a recent one claiming that Morsi did not actually win the election, but stole it with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood and the United States.

In addition to the lawsuit, on August 8th hundreds of demonstrators protested outside Egypt’s Media Production City, located in 6 October City, against what they described as media corruption. The protesters demanded the closure of the not only of Fara’een channel but also a talk show show run by Lamis al-Hadadi that had been critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, President Morsi, and the revolution generally.

Ahram Online reported that:

The protest turned violent when several people were attacked, including Khaled Salah, editor-in-chief of daily newspaper Youm Al-Sabea, and talk show hosts Amr Adib and Youssef El-Husseini.

The protesters also reportedly sought to keep guests from entering the network’s studios, but they were successfully sneaked in the back door.The Muslim Brotherhood said it did not organize the protests and condemned the attacks.

What is interesting is that while the protesters seem to have been demanding an end to critical commentary that displeases them, the Freedom and Justice Party lawsuit apparently focuses more exclusively on the issue of incitement to violence–which is a crime in most democratic states, irregardless of free speech laws.

There is also an important metadiscourse going on here, as people discuss the context within which Akasha is being censored. It is almost certainly no coincidence that the strongest–if also craziest (he’s often called “Egypt’s Glenn Beck” by Western pundits)–of the Egyptian public voices for the military authority should be silenced just after the president partially disempowered SCAF’s role(s) in politics.

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