The Deception of "Arab Spring": Legal Dilemmas in Egypt

JURIST Guest Columnist Dr. Ibrahim Saleh of the University of Cape Town says that a wide array of problems are currently plaguing Egypt and are severely hampering the nation's development...

The fear and mistrust that result from violence and crisis limit people's perception of their political community and contribute to a "fragility of citizenship" on various levels. Such "fragility of citizenship" has had direct consequences for the quality of democratic governance that Egypt has experienced over the last few decades. Specifically, since December 2010, a new kind of cultural resistance was introduced emphasizing "street republics" over the formal institutions of states. Additionally, the relations between the media and military affairs, and the media and the security field, have been dramatically altered as a result of the increasing socio-political and economic pressures that have redefined the social contract in many of the other Middle East and North African nations.

Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Salafis, have become a political majority in Egypt after the recent elections. This has had dire consequences for Egypt. The Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the MB aimed at re-Islamization of Egypt, strives towards the application of Sharia—with the aim of establishing a tyrannical theocratic regime akin to that of Iran. MB received funding from tithes from members' annual income, as well as generous donations to operate on doctrines of proselytization (da'wa) and deception (taqiyyah).

The political upheaval and waves of popular protests since 2011 are inadequately explained by public discontent towards economic hardship, political oppression and social inequalities. Egypt has fallen into disarray with continuous negative human development indications that range from being the lowest in personal income in the world, declining productivity, poor scientific research, decreasing school enrollment, high illiteracy and lagging health conditions that are behind comparable nations. The gendered dynamics of poverty, income gaps, unemployment and illiteracy (as well as the gender relations) help to better explain the protest movements.

The Egyptian media is still crippled by repressive measures that range from the jailing and persecution of journalists to the widespread terrorizing journalists of "'insult laws" and criminal defamation that created a sort of nauseating communication crisis setting. The state of human rights is in one of its lowest ebbs; including the Press Law, the Publications Law, and the penal code regulation governing the press. According to Freedom House, Egypt is deemed to have an un-free press, while the Reporters Without Borders emphasized that harassment and imprisonment of journalists remain prevalent in Egypt, which placed (PDF) Egypt on the rank of 158 out of 179 nations on press freedoms.

The status of journalism in the country reflects the values of its society (particularly its soci-political and economic environment). It is not surprising to observe the very low ebb of journalism practices and civil liberties in Egypt. Journalism remains sitting in a shadow as a result of state intervention, censorship, legal and regulatory issues. The Egyptian journalists are used to being on the front lines and fighting for basic human rights while being confronted with oppressive laws and regulations. Journalists certainly would never think of having a future, unless they enter an automatic alliance with the "Patron State."

In this hostile environment, extreme manipulation of the media is routinely implemented and transformed through the cumulative effects of fear. In this destabilizing setting, it is rational to find the spin of increasing radical tone in political voices and new modes of political engagement. This volatile situation has gradually led to "deliberative enclaves," where group positions and practices are reinforced rather than openly critiqued.

Confusion and lack of institutional legitimacy is another side of the crisis. Many non-Arab media and political experts disregarded the fact that tensions between the West and the Muslim world are not a result of a clash of religions; they are rather a symptom of deep-rooted clashes of interest and a lack of any mutual understanding of the contenders. The political coalition of Muslims in Egypt, however, has constantly been projecting rhetoric of protection against "otherness" to rescue the Egyptians from dreadful dangers that cannot be seen. According to the MB media, it is an attempt to conduct social and religious cleansing to protect the purity of "Ummah" (Islamic State) from sinners and anyone who would not comply with their law without questioning.

MB has always used "taqiyah" (lying) for political gains. However, much of the MB threat is a fantasy which has been exaggerated and distorted to justify using force and violence against the potential enemies everywhere. Along with taqiyah, violence is utilized. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) has identified 701 cases of torture at Egyptian police stations since 1985, with a record of 204 victims dying of torture and mistreatment in that time. The EOHR contends that many crimes of torture occur in broad daylight at police checkpoints and in people's homes, in flagrant violation of the people's dignity and freedom.

Further, civil rights in Egypt are jeopardized by number of laws that have a bearing on their applications such as the Riotous Assembly Law, the Meetings and Demonstrations Law, the Emergency Law and the Police Organization Law.

The Riotous Assembly Law is by nature an exceptional law similar to a martial decree. This law was promulgated during the exceptional circumstances Egypt experienced under the oppression of the British occupation.
In May 1999, the Egypt Parliament passed a law (Law Number 153 of 1993) encroaching upon the freedom of non-governmental organizations (NGO) to organize and act. The law banned private groups from working to influence government policy or union activity. It gave the Ministry of Social Affairs power to disband boards of directors. As a result, NGOs had to seek permission from the government before accepting foreign donations. Following a wave of protests by both Egyptian and international NGOs, the law was found unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court on procedural grounds, and it was suspended. However, the country's older law on NGOs (Law Number 32 of 1964), which is seen as equally repressive, remains in force.

Over a period of a year, MB disclosed their apocalyptic vision of a disease that was spreading from the west throughout the world and called it "jahilliyah" (a state of barbarous ignorance), but in fact, they were regressing to a barbarous age. Jahilliyah under these circumstances is used as a way of fighting the enemy, and in fact has a kind of existential weight, because somehow it is doing God's will on earth. However, torture in Egypt was and is still wide spread, and escalation of sectarian violence exists (especially the plight of Copts and Shias who have been killed in many occasions). The faltering economy does not help matters, either (the price of everything is rising and everything seems to be falling apart).

On February 1, 2011, senior Egyptian Brotherhood leader Muhammad Ghannem stated (PDF) on the Iranian Arabic TV network Al-Alam that the MB would demand the closure of the Suez Canal as soon as the organization gets into a position of power. His statement alone spiked the oil price. His further declaration that Egypt should go to war with Israel was unsettling as well.

As stated by Elias Canetti in his book Crowds and Power, the most blatant tyranny is the one which asks the most blatant questions. Canetti discerned six ingredients necessary for oppression: secrecy, physical brutality, swift reaction, the right to question and to demand answers, the right to judge and condemn and the right to pardon and show mercy. Egypt turned its back on a secular dictatorship only to fall into the arms of what looks like a budding religious fascism dictatorship that made many of those who the streets in the first revolution wish that the good old days of Hosni Mubarak would come back. As nineteenth century satirist Ambrose Bierce once quipped, revolutions are "an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment."

Many revolutionaries that fought the country's successive authoritarian regimes have been marginalized and are forced to watch as the bloodletting continues. Life in Egypt has become a faint glimmer and is in danger of being extinguished completely. Many Egyptians and non-Egyptians that lived in the euphoria of "Arab Spring" downplayed the detrimental finale that profoundly undermined democracy in Egypt.

Moving abruptly from rigid authoritarianism to national elections without first building civil society has made Egypt at prey and hijacked by Islamist forces again. "Despair is betrayal" is a mantra that has echoed throughout Egypt during the many tough times over the past three years.

Dr. Ibrahim Saleh is a senior lecturer and the convener of political communication at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town. His most recent research investigates the "mediatisation" of regional political dynamics and the indigenous freedom agenda.

Suggested citation: Dr. Ibrahim Saleh, The Deception of "Arab Spring": Legal Dilemmas in Egypt, JURIST - Hotline, Feb. 26, 2013, http://jurist.org/hotline/2014/02/ibrahim-saleh-arab-spring.php.


This article was prepared for publication by Stephen Krug, an associate editor for JURIST's professional commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at professionalcommentary@jurist.org

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