Sisi's clunking fist of repression

Sisi's clunking fist of repression
Comment: Egypt's anti-terrorism law is a blatant attack on freedom that casts suspicion on journalists and the majority of the country's citizenry, says Amr Khalifa.
5 min read
18 Aug, 2015
Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan, is one of many journalists in Egypt prisons (Anadolu)

If Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is the elephant in the room, the newly minted anti-terrorism law has just become the dinosaur of Egypt's political landscape.

One of Egypt's most prominent human right's defenders, Gamal Eid, declared that Egypt now has "90 million possible terrorism suspects... we have lost all signs of a civil state".

Eid's comment is not overstated. Egypt has accelerated its undeniable march towards the militarisation of laws to control both its people and the media.

The nation is facing an insurgency in Sinai and a violence elsewhere in the country. But the new law is so decidedly draconian that overtakes those dangers as a more menacing threat to a large slice of the citizenry. 

This is not the first time Sisi has kicked this particularly explosive ball around. Another terrorism law was passed nearly six months ago that created special terrorism courts and shielded state workers from prosecution for violence against suspects.

This time, there is a stark attack on freedom of speech. For journalists, it is nothing short of an attack on the Fourth Estate.

Egypt's rulers, starting with Nasser, have been keenly aware of the crucial role of the media in guiding, cajoling and manipulating the public.

But the January 25 revolution taught the Egyptian deep state a valuable lesson: the internet has become a weapon in the hands of an increasingly savvy revolutionary class, and the anti-terrorism law seeks to control those loopholes of freedom while also threatening to levy large fines on more traditional media.

     Egypt has accelerated its undeniable march towards the militarisation of laws to control both its people and the media.

In a country where the average Egyptian pulls in $2-$3 a day, the threat of fines between $25,000 and $64,000 represent daunting, and potentially insurmountable, hurdles to journalists covering the Sisi regime.

There are two significant ways in which the state seeks to exert immeasurable influence over media, of all kinds. Firstly, by expanding the very notion of what terrorism means.

The UN, the very organisation responsible for international security, defines terrorism in terms that do not hold civilians to the probing eye unnecessarily.

"Criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons", says resolution 1566.

Article 2 of Egypt's new anti-terrorism law, on the other hand, defines terrorism thus: "Any use of force, violence or threat to terrorise, from within or without, general order or to endanger the peaceful state and/or security of society, its citizens and concerns... or the harming of national unity."

Sisi's twisted understanding of law and order

It is these intentionally imprecise terms, "endangering the peaceful state" and the "harming of national unity" where images of a fascist state come to mind. Who is to define what constitutes "harming of national unity"?

Already present in Egypt is an environment that considers as traitorous any person or group running contrary to the public narrative.

Use of such terms will only give legal validation to a dynamic which crushes any potential democratic instinct or political balance. Imagine, for a moment, a writer, investigating the New Cairo project, obtaining critical a quote from an international infrastructure expert.

Journalists have two choices: omit the contrarian narrative or be faced with the possibility of fines and jail for "harming national unity".

     Egypt's rulers, starting with Nasser, have been keenly aware of the crucial role of the media in guiding, cajoling and manipulating the public.

Indeed, it is not the media's job to "unite" but rather it is to question, prod, and offer checks and balances to the state's narrative. "Endangering the peaceful state" is no less dangerous a term and is sufficiently vague enough to frighten already threatened journalists.

After all, the number of jailed journalists just increased, officially, from 18 on 1 June, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, to an official count of 22 on 17 August.

If you think Article 2 restricts reporting, then consider articles 7 and 35, which appear to have been penned by a state security official, in a foul mood and whose priorities do not include a free press.

Article 7, yet again, casts the widest of nets: "Anyone who shall facilitate a terroristic crime, either directly or indirectly, shall be punished."

Even more dramatically, the article does not state the nature of the punishment. Though Article 9 does clarify that any "crime of terror" is punishable by Articles 28, 29, 38, and 98 of the penal code. With Article 7, in mind, imagine how a court could argue the criminality of merely mentioning a demonstration by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Article 35 is the one that has received the most attention. It penalises journalists, for offering any account contrary to that provided by the state, in all matters of security. It is a crime punishable by a fine of up to $64,000.

Think back to the attack in July by Wilayat Sinai, the Sinai-based and IS-aligned group. Egyptian and Western media quoted death toll figures, from multiple medical and security sources, that were triple the official final toll.

In the new environment those journalists would fall under the draconian second part of Article 35. Such parties would be prohibited from practising the profession "for a period not to exceed one year".

Egyptians in general, and journalists in particular, now face a wide net of suspicion. In creating an anti-terrorism law that levels suspicion at the majority of Egyptians, the deep state breeds terror while fighting it.

Amr Khalifa is an Egyptian analyst/commentator. He has written for Daily News Egypt, Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah and Arab Media and Society Journal. Twitter: @cairo67unedited.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.