By William Fisher
When Egypt’s ruling military council abolished the government’s Ministry of Information and appointed a general to monitor the country’s press, the pro-democracy forces that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak were hopeful that Egypt was entering a new era of free expression.
Now, three months after that amazing victory, the bloom appears to be off the rose: The protesters who filled Tahrir Square are charging that the military is carrying out a Mubarak-like program of repression. The country’s military police are accused of indiscriminate arrests and torture of prisoners. Women, arrested for taking part in demonstrations, have been given “virginity tests” by their jailers. Civilians are being tried in military courts. Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook are overflowing with grievances against the military council posted by activists frustrated by the slow pace of democratic change, the arrest of human rights defenders, and the jailing of critics of the interim government.
In this post-Mubarak period, perhaps no facet of Egyptian life has suffered more than freedom of expression. The official government censor is gone and the country’s press is arguably freer than at any time during the 30-year reign of the aging Mubarak. The interim government also replaced the board chairmen and chief editors of seven state-run newspapers and magazines.
But many journalists and their editors are practicing self-censorship rather than challenging ominous signs from the government that there are still bright red lines they cross at their peril.
One of these red lines is the military itself. Under Mubarak, criticism of the military was a crime. Now, the military council has assumed that the old law is also the new law; bloggers who have raised questions about the military have been arrested, tried before military courts, convicted and sentenced to substantial prison terms.
Last month, an Egyptian military court sentenced a young blogger to three years in prison in what Human Rights Watch (HRW) described as a "serious setback to freedom of expression" in post-Mubarak Egypt.
In a blog post, Maikel Nabil had denounced the military’s conduct since Egypt’s revolution began on Jan. 25, citing human rights reports on the army’s alleged use of violence and torture against citizens. In earlier writings, the 26-year-old blogger had explained his decision to resist compulsory military service and called for others to do the same.
A number of human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, have strongly criticized Nabil’s sentencing by a military court.
The US government has also denounced the sentence. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the US is "deeply concerned" about Nabil's sentencing. He said Egypt experiencing a "rocky time" in its transition from decades of autocracy. And he called on Egypt's government to allow greater freedom of expression, saying this is not the kind of progress the US is looking for.
These methods do not go "in the direction desired by the Egyptians” when they met up at Tahrir square, Cairo, to demand the resignation of President Mubarak, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. "We are concerned about reports of initiatives to crack down on journalists, bloggers, judges and others," Clinton said to the press.
Media watchdog Reporters without Borders noted in February that while Internet censorship had officially ended, some online controls were still in place. Now, in June, they are still in place.
Nabil’s “harsh sentence was intended to send a message that criticism of the army would not be tolerated,” Adel Ramadan, one of Nabil’s defense lawyers, told the IPS news service.
According to Human Rights Watch, the sentence is the worst attack on Egyptian free expression since the Mubarak regime jailed its first blogger in 2007. Activists suspect anywhere from hundreds to thousands of additional Egyptians are being held and tried before military courts behind closed doors. The military said that Nabil may appeal the sentence, but that anything that threatened the safety of the army was a crime that would be prosecuted.
The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) was not impressed. "Once again we reiterate that the Egyptian revolution had broken out against the oppression, suppression and violation of freedom expression and the sovereignty of the law means evidently that nobody is above criticism," the group said.
ANHRI has also asked the Egyptian authorities to modify the Egyptian rules and legislation to prevent the prosecution of opinion analysts because of their views.
In another development, activists and youth groups were further infuriated by news of the questioning of two journalists and a prominent blogger over criticism of the army on live talk shows.
Reem Maged and Nabil Sharaf El-Din, the two reporters, and prominent blogger and activist Hossam El-Hamalawy, were questioned for three hours by Adel Morsi, who heads the military justice authority. They were later released.
Despite a growing number of press freedom abuses, some newspaper editors and reporters have given the impression that Egypt was now enjoying full press freedom. One of them, Ashraf El-Leithy, deputy editor of Middle East News Agency (MENA), Egypt’s official news wire, told IPS, “Before Feb. 11, we had strict orders not to discuss certain topics, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Mohamed ElBaradei (Mubarak’s political opponent) “Now we have complete freedom to write about anything – without any restriction.”
He said many of MENA’s journalists and editors backed the revolution, but were afraid of losing their jobs if they strayed from the official line. With Mubarak gone and his ruling party dissolved, the news wire has gone “from being the voice of the government, to being a voice of the people.”
But observers caution that this view of press freedom in Egypt is seriously exaggerated. For example, they cite a letter to newspaper editors on Mar. 22 from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) warning that all coverage of topics involving Egypt’s military establishment must first be vetted by the SCAF’s public relations and intelligence directorates.
Last week, more than 20 pro-democracy youth groups said they would boycott a meeting organized by the military council because the army was adopting the repressive measures of the Mubarak era.
In a statement, the groups said they would reject any dialogue while military trials of civilians carry on. They said the army had failed to investigate claims of violations by military police and denounced a new set of laws criminalizing protests and sit-ins. Rights advocates argue that the military lost its immunity from media criticism the minute it assumed control of the country.
Rights watchdogs have always rated the Middle East and North Africa region as one of the toughest areas of the world for journalists. Last year, Freedom House ranked Egypt 130 out of 196 countries for press freedom, and reported an increase in legal intimidation against journalists and bloggers to the alarming rate of one lawsuit per day.
But that was to be expected for any period before the Tahrir Square uprising. That the same kinds of criticisms should be valid now is a tragic betrayal of those whose demonstrations risked so much.
During the nightly Tahrir Square demonstrations, the army became the darling of anti-Mubarak forces. It was the army that kept the demonstrators safe from Mubarak loyalists. But, sadly, the honeymoon would now appear to be over.
Egypt’s military rulers, strengthened by an overwhelming vote for their position in a referendum, have decreed an accelerated path toward parliamentary and presidential elections. They say they did so because they were not comfortable in business of governance. While we may applaud the army’s rush to get out of the governance business, quick elections will restore civilian rule but will probably aid those parties which are best organized, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood and what is left of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
Voters in the referendum were thus forced to choose between two bad options: lingering military rule or rule by unknown parties with questionable credentials.
Whether they knew it or not, they unquestionably chose the latter. Only time will tell how wise they were.