Egyptian Government Implements Free Speech Restrictions Ahead Of Elections

Mar 23, 2018
Originally published on March 23, 2018 9:07 pm
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Egypt is under a severe crackdown on the eve of its presidential election even though the winner is all but certain. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi only has one opponent, and he's seen as an ally. Yet government restrictions have closed off real debate, and there are strict limits on the media. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us now from Cairo. And, Jane, give us the details. How strict is this crackdown?

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: It's really strict. In fact human rights groups here say they've never seen anything like this. And that's mostly because it's so sweeping. So the government in the past year has banned more than 90 news websites. It's jailed dozens of Egyptian journalists. Even a state TV host was taken into custody because he mentioned the wife of an army officer who was having trouble making ends meet, and he was charged with insulting the police. So, Audie, most people are very careful about what they say. But I spoke with an activist at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Dalia Abdel Hameed.

DALIA ABDEL HAMEED: I think it's getting much, much worse, and people are not sure if this were to stop after the election or it would get even much more worse. Freedom of organization is gone. Freedom of assembly is gone. They are now after the freedom of expression.

ARRAF: So when it comes to the elections, it's affecting that as well. For instance, if you're a journalist covering the elections, you can't talk to anyone in the polling sites according to the regulations. You can't talk to people who voted in there. You can't talk to the election workers. And you're not supposed to ask them who they voted for even after they've left the polling station. So there are an awful lot of restrictions around these elections themselves even though this crackdown has been going on for some time.

CORNISH: Do the restrictions extend beyond the world of the media?

ARRAF: They do. They extend to culture. There's an Egyptian singer, Sherine Abdel-Wahab, who was recently sentenced to six months in prison because she told a fan jokingly in a music video that they shouldn't drink water from the Nile.

I spoke with a playwright, Ahmed El Attar. Censors had demanded that he cut five scenes in his play before the revolution. And he tells us that one of the things he had to cut was a joke. Do you want to hear it?

CORNISH: Go for it.

AHMED EL ATTAR: A guy finds Aladdin's lamp. And he scratches it, and the genie comes out. And he tells, you know, tell me whatever you want; I'll make it happen. And so the guy says, can you build a bridge for me from Cairo to Aswan? So the genie says, no, no, no, it's too hard; choose something else. So he goes, can you make the president leave his position? And then the genie says, well, do you want the bridge one way or two ways?

ARRAF: So the point of that isn't that it's a hilarious joke. A variation of that has been around for a while. But that joke wasn't even about the current president, which tells you how sensitive they are.

CORNISH: So what's driving this? I mean, we said earlier that the president's only opponent is an ally.

ARRAF: Absolutely. He has put the entire country under a state of emergency for the past year, and that's related to the fight against ISIS. Sissi is a former army general, and he reminds people constantly that Egypt's enemies are numerous, and they're real. He's overseen the military widening its influence in almost every sphere in Egypt. Anything considered insulting to the military or the police is dangerous. So that's left Egyptians unsure where the red lines are. I was speaking to one young Egyptian recently who told me that at least under Mubarak, it was clear what wasn't allowed. But now you never know when you're going to get in trouble.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jane Arraf speaking to us from Cairo. Jane, thank you.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.