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The Press under Morsi

Morsi took over as Egypt’s first post-uprising president, and also its first-ever democratically elected president, on June 30, 2012. In an informal inauguration speech held at Tahrir Square on June 29, 2012, he said that power resided with the people and promised to govern Egypt democratically.44 In another reassuring proclamation shortly before his election, Morsi said, “No one will touch media freedoms. There will be no pens broken, no opinions prevented, no channels or newspapers shut down in my era.”45 Less than two months into his term, Morsi pleased many journalists and activists when he outlawed the “pretrial detention of people accused of press crimes.”46

In the eyes of some analysts, however, Morsi’s brief term was characterized more by repression of the press than by freedom of the press. Morsi did not eliminate restrictive Mubarak-era media laws and, in fact, like the scaf, he used them at times to restrict some forms of speech. Some analysts argued that Morsi’s treatment of the press demonstrated that he was simply another in a long line of Egyptian dictators.47

During the first several months of his term, private 1 awyers supportive of Morsi filed numerous lawsuits against journalists and other media figures for “insulting the president.”48 In fact, there were more “insulting the president” lawsuits brought during Morsi’s brief stay as president than during the entire thirty-year Mubarak era. Also during the Morsi period, state newspaper editors antagonistic to the Muslim Brotherhood were sacked and replaced with figures more sympathetic to the group,49 and some newspaper issues were confiscated.50 These facets of Morsi’s governance prompted media scholar Rasha Abdulla to argue that Egypt experienced an “unprecedented lack of freedom of expression” under Morsi.51

Other analysts have suggested, however, that while many of Morsi’s media- related moves may have been misguided and reflect some of his more reactionary tendencies, freedoms during his brief term were relatively high, as evidenced by the fierce demonization campaign launched against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in the private media. From this perspective, Morsi’s moves to silence critics were reactions to an irresponsible, and sometimes seditious, press. Analyst Eric Margolis argued that Morsi was “too soft” on the media and the rest of Egypt’s “deep government,” which Margolis claimed was actively “sabotaging the democratic government.”52 In the aftermath of open calls for an overthrow of Morsi, political scientist Shadi Hamid asked whether Egyptians should have the right to “call . . . for the army to depose an elected president.”53 Hamid noted that in the United States, such calls are not considered protected forms of speech and are prosecutable by law. Research by Abdallah Shleifer suggests that some Egyptian journalists conceived of themselves as political activists (prejudices therein included),54 while in-depth interviews carried out by Mohamad Hamas Elmasry and Mohammed El-Nawawy suggest that journalists during the Morsi period intentionally biased reports against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.55

Egypt’s 2012 constitution was passed in December 2012, about six months into Morsi’s term. The document was a point of contention among Egyptians, in part because many liberal political forces felt that Islamists unfairly dominated the constitution-building process. Many Egyptians also argued that Morsi used his controversial November 2012 presidential decree, which granted him temporary powers to exceed his legal authority, to impose a divisive constitution on the nation.56 Critics of the 2012 constitution, which was written by a democratically assembled but Islamist-dominated body, argued that it unnecessarily restricted press freedoms, and that it could be used by the government to manipulate public opinion.

Although the 2012 constitution’s demarcation of the freedom of the press represented a move forward from the 1971 constitution, it arguably did not go far enough to ensure that freedoms enshrined within it would be adequately protected. Article 45 declared that “freedom of thought and opinion are guaranteed” and that “every person has the right to express his opinion in speaking, writing, image, or otherwise.” Article 48 guaranteed the “freedom of journalism, the press, the publishing industry, broadcasting, and other media.” Article 49 provided all Egyptians the right to own newspapers without government permission, which represented a significant shift from the Mubarak-era issuing of newspaper licenses. Moreover, notably absent in the new constitution was a prominently entrenched emergency protocol, which Mubarak had used to eliminate freedoms granted in the 1971 constitution. Hence, whereas Mubarak had sole discretion over declaring states of emergency and could renew states of emergency more or less indefinitely, the 2012 constitution forced the president to obtain majority approval from both houses of parliament in order to declare a state of emergency. States of emergency were also limited to a maximum of six months.57 After that, the constitution allowed the president to request no more than one additional six-month emergency period, but this could only take effect with public approval in a national referendum. These restrictions on the president’s powers therefore made it more difficult for any president to use the Emergency Law to stifle dissent.

The 2012 constitution also contained some significant restrictions on press content and speech. Article 44 declared that it was “forbidden to insult any messengers or prophets,” while Article 48 allowed for censorship with “a court ruling” and during “times of war or public mobilization.” Article 48 also declared that freedom of the press would be placed within the “framework of the essential elements of state and society,” which, according to the constitution’s opening section, included “Islam” and “Islamic law.” Thus, although the articles in this new constitution took some restrictive power away from the president and other elected officials, the courts still had the power to use these articles to narrow press freedoms, including restricting speech deemed to contradict Islamic principles.58

Article 215 of the 2012 constitution, which outlined the duties of the National Media Council, was also controversial, as this newly created body was given power over preserving “the pluralism of the media, preventing their concentration or monopolization,” and protecting “the interests of the public.” The council was also empowered with the discretion to “ensure that the different media abide by norms of professionalism and decency . . . and observe the values and constructive traditions of society.” Once again, it seemed that the government was only willing to go so far in granting real freedoms to the press.59

In one sense, then, the Morsi period represented a partial democratic opening, particularly given that the state-run press was not as likely to toe the government line as they were during the Mubarak period. In another sense, however, the Morsi period highlighted both the need for more competent and progressive governance and a lack of journalistic professionalism that still needs to be addressed if Egypt’s political system is to truly advance as a free and independent one.

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