By Rami G. Khouri
November 09, 2013
Beneath the surface of wars and ethnic tensions, one of the most troubling trends in the Arab world these days is the determination by many governments to stifle freedom of expression and thereby limit the ability of citizens to make their views known and hold accountable those who exercise political power. Two different examples of this come from Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council states, reflecting dangerous trends in both cases. These developments are important because freedom of expression and the ability to protest peacefully in public are at the very heart of free, democratic and humane societies that respect the rights of their citizens – which is the goal that tens of millions of Arabs are struggling to achieve in the current wave of uprisings.
The two approaches to restricting the freedom of expression rights of citizens in Egypt and the Gulf states reflect the dominant social/political traditions in those lands – to curtail the extent of public demonstrations in Egypt, and to pre-empt any such demonstrations before they reach the public sphere in the Gulf states.
In the Gulf states, especially Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, authorities have indicted dozens of citizens for using social media like Twitter and Facebook to express their views, including legitimate, nonviolent criticisms of state policies. The prison sentences meted out to some of the accused, combined with the chilling effect such legal action has on the rest of the population, robs the Gulf states of their single most important national asset that will prove to be far more important to their national well-being than oil and gas in the decades ahead: the ability of their citizens to use their mind and speak freely for the public good.
In Egypt, draft laws being considered by the government that seeks to quell public unrest and counter terrorism would restrict citizens’ ability to protest in public. It includes allowing the interior minister or senior officials to cancel, postpone or change the location of any planned protest, and give governors the power to designate “protest-free” areas near state buildings.
Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi last week replied to growing criticisms by saying that the draft law could be amended after dialogue with political forces and parties. That has not stopped the pressure by democracy activists; just two days ago 20 Egyptian human rights organizations published a joint statement warning that the draft counterterrorism bill would lead to the reinstatement of the “police state” in Egypt. It charged that the draft law’s provisions would “serve as the legal basis for the re-establishment of the police state.”
The activists charged that the proposed law broadens the definition of “terrorist acts” too broadly to include activities that are not related to terrorism, such as “disrupting the authorities from carrying out some of their activities,” “[carrying out] acts which seek to hinder the implementation of the constitution or the law,” and “preventing educational institutions from carrying out their work.”
The draft legislation defines an “act of terrorism” as including “any behavior which damages the communications or information systems, the financial systems or the national economy,” the statement adds. Such restrictions that are so broadly defined (actually, ill-defined) are dangerous because they could open the way to harassment of “peaceful political opposition members, human rights activists, and a broad range of groups working to defend democracy and human rights,” the statement said.
Many Egyptians oppose the legislation because they have enjoyed new freedoms since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in early 2011; they do not want to see those freedoms eroded through the state’s over-reaction to legitimate security threats, especially in the Sinai Peninsula. Yet this hard-line approach to maintaining public order by Egypt and Gulf states is frightening and dangerous, because it threatens to maintain the Arab world in its agonizing modern legacy of national mediocrity due to lifeless citizenship. This approach perpetuates the single worst and most degrading aspect of the modern Arab security state that has defined the Arab world for the past half century or more – curtailing the ability of individual citizens to think for themselves and express their thoughts freely.
Every other democratic practice in society – free media, voting, civil society activism – relies on the foundation of freedom of expression. One of the reasons the Arab world has endured a steady cycle of public incompetence, corruption, waste and stagnation since the 1950s is that it has denied itself the power and creativity of its several hundred million citizens. The fact that this trend continues in some of the Arab world’s most influential countries is disheartening – but the robust resistance to the Arab state’s intellectual oppression is equally real, and gives us hope that the merchants of darkness and listless citizenship will be defeated in due course.