November 18, 2015
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Arab Republic of Egypt
Minister of Justice, Arab Republic of Egypt
Minister of Defense, Arab Republic of Egypt
Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the United States
Secretary of State, United States of America
We, the undersigned North America-based scholars of Egypt, write to register our deep concern about the deterioration of the right to freedom of expression in Egypt and the continued referral of civilians to military courts for trial. The arrest on November 8, 2015 of journalist and human rights activist Hossam Bahgat is only the most recent example of the consistent violation of the right to freedom of the press enshrined in Egypt’s 2014 constitution. Many Egyptian citizens are jailed or facing criminal prosecution for other forms of expression, from participation in peaceful protests to Facebook and Twitter posts expressing even the mildest criticism of government figures, policies or state institutions. More than 3,700 Egyptians have been tried in military courts since October 2014. These government policies only harm and weaken Egypt’s international reputation.
Articles 70 and 71 of the Egyptian constitution of 2014 guarantee freedom of the press, with Article 71 stipulating, “No freedom restricting penalty shall be imposed for publication or publicity crimes.” During his September 2015 visit to New York to speak before the UN General Assembly, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told CNN that there is “unprecedented freedom of expression in Egypt. No one in Egypt can bar anyone working in media or journalism or on TV from expressing their views.” This assertion is at odds with the finding of the Committee to Protect Journalists that at least 19 journalists are in jail for activities directly related to their reporting.
Some of these journalists were imprisoned for covering crucial events in Egyptian politics. Mahmoud Abou Zeid was arrested while photographing the dispersal of the sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya in August 2013 for the well-known agency Demotix. Abou Zeid, also known as Showkan, has now endured more than 800 days of pre-trial detention, during which time he has contracted hepatitis C and become anemic. Videographer Saeed Abuhaj, who covers issues in the Sinai ranging from fuel shortages to conflicts between citizens and the police, is also nearing two years of pre-trial detention since his imprisonment on November 17, 2013. Other journalists have been given lengthy jail sentences in what appear to be nothing more than fits of government pique at the exposure of human rights abuses. Omar Abdel Maksoud was first taken into police custody in February 2014 when he reported on a celebration organized by activists for Dahab Hamdy, who was imprisoned for participating in an anti-government protest, and was forced to give birth to her daughter, Hurriya, while handcuffed in jail. After being detained for a month, Maksoud and his two brothers were charged with setting fire to cars during President Sisi’s campaign for office and with belonging to the Society of Muslim Brothers, and sentenced to life in prison.
The most recent egregious violation of Egyptians’ constitutionally protected right to freedom of the press was the imprisonment of Hossam Bahgat for three days beginning on November 8, 2015. Bahgat is an internationally renowned human rights activist who founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and won Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges Award in 2011. Bahgat was first summoned to military intelligence headquarters and then taken to the offices of the North Cairo Military Prosecution. He reports that his interrogation by military officials was based solely on his article “A Coup Busted,” an examination of the trial of 26 officers on charges of attempting to overthrow the regime, which was published at the independent news website Mada Masr on October 13. Bahgat was charged with violating Articles 102 and 188 of the Penal Code, which forbid the deliberate broadcast of false news or the spread of information that harms the public interest. While he was released after three days, likely as a result of international pressure including criticism of his arrest by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, it is unclear whether he continues to face criminal charges. Any such charges would clearly violate the right to freedom of the press guaranteed in the constitution. Bahgat reports that his interrogators repeatedly told him that he did not enjoy the normal protections afforded to journalists because he is not a member of the Journalists Syndicate. We note that an attempt to deny citizens the right to freely express themselves in the media on the grounds that they are not journalists violates Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a signatory. Article 19 says that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to …impart information and ideas of all kinds…either orally, in writing or in print.” This right has been denied in the past week to Amr Hamzawy, an academic and former member of Parliament, when the newspaper al-Shorouq was ordered not to print his article on the failure of the autocratic regime. Hamzawy also continues to be threatened with jail time for expressing his views, as he is charged with “insulting the judiciary” for a June 2013 tweet criticizing a court verdict.
Government attempts to stifle citizens’ freedom of expression have increasingly occurred outside the realm of the media as well. Participants in peaceful protests have repeatedly been imprisoned, as in the case of Mahienour al-Massry, who is serving a two-year sentence for her participation in a peaceful sit-in at a police station in Alexandria. The sit-in was called in response to reports that lawyers attending the interrogation of activists in the station had been beaten. Similarly, Alaa Abd el Fattah is serving a five-year prison sentence for participating in a November 2013 demonstration in front of the Shura Council in opposition to the protest law and to proposed articles in the constitution allowing military trials of civilians. Serving five years with Abd el Fattah is Ahmed Abd el Rahman, who was charged, in part, with “thuggery” after defending women protesters at the Shura Council protest who were sexually assaulted by men widely believed to be plainclothes police.
As the cases of Ahmed Abd el Rahman, Hossam Bahgat and others cited here suggest, these crackdowns on freedom of expression are more often motivated by a desire to protect the government’s image than to protect the “public interest.” Sending civilians to trial in military courts, where they enjoy fewer legal protections than in civilian courts, allows such assaults on citizens’ rights to be more easily covered up. Article 204 of the 2014 constitution says, in part, that “no civilian shall face trial before the Military Court, except for crimes that constitute a direct assault against military facilities or camps….against military zones…against the Armed Forces’ equipment, vehicles, weapons…military secrets, or its public funds.” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch, testified earlier this month that 3,700 civilians have been sentenced before military courts since October 2014 alone. One of the consistent demands made by citizens since 2011 has been to abolish military trials for civilians.
Egypt faces a set of daunting challenges, from building a political system in which citizens feel invested to generating employment to ending violent attacks in Sinai, Cairo and elsewhere. The undersigned scholars have lived, studied, worked and conducted research in Egypt, and published on various aspects of the country’s history, politics, society, economy, literature and arts. Many of us have done so for decades. We want the best for the country and its citizens, who continue to labor for a better, more just future. Along with many Egyptians, we delighted in the promise of social justice and political freedom brought by the 2011 revolution. Egypt can only conquer the grave challenges it faces by allowing citizens the right to free expression about the solutions to these problems, and by ensuring that civilians are tried in civilian, not military courts. We call on the Egyptian authorities to respect citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and the right of civilians not to be tried in military courts, as well as for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience swept up in the ongoing crackdown.
Joel Beinin, Stanford University
Laurie Brand, University of Southern California
Nathan Brown, George Washington University
Jason Brownlee, University of Texas, Austin
Elliott Colla, Georgetown University
Khaled Fahmy, Harvard University
James Gelvin, University of California, Los Angeles
Ellis Goldberg, University of Washington
Vickie Langohr, College of the Holy Cross
Zachary Lockman, New York University
Shana Minkin, Sewanee University
Yasmin Moll, University of Michigan
Tamir Moustafa, Simon Fraser University
Sonali Pahwa, University of Minnesota
Sumita Pahwa, Scripps College
Mark Peterson, Miami University of Ohio
Lisa Pollard, University of North Carolina, Wilmington
Nancy Reynolds, Washington University in St. Louis
Mona Russell, East Carolina University
Bruce Rutherford, Colgate University
Hesham Sallam, Stanford University
Paul Sedra, Simon Fraser University
Jeannie Sowers, University of New Hampshire
Joshua Stacher, Kent State University
Christopher Stone, Hunter College
Ted Swedenburg, University of Arkansas
Chris Toensing, Middle East Research and Information Project
Judith Tucker, Georgetown University
Jessica Winegar, Northwestern University