Free Speech In Egypt, Where A Tweet Can Mean Indictment

Former President Mohammed Morsi is not the only Egyptian citizen under indictment by the military-led government that ousted him. Former lawmaker and political scientist Amr Hamzawy was also recently charged — in his case, for insulting the judiciary in a tweet. Robert Siegel speaks with Hamzawy about the state of freedoms in Egypt under military rule.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Former President Mohammed Morsi is just one of many Egyptians facing charges for opposing the country's military-led government. Another is former lawmaker and political scientist Amr Hamzawy. He's been charged with insulting the judiciary in a tweet that he sent back in June. In it, he criticized a ruling in which a judge convicted several dozen nonprofit workers for plotting to destabilize Egypt. And Amr Hamzawy joins us now from Cairo. Welcome to the program.

AMR HAMZAWY: Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: And in the past, you've been critical both of the Morsi government and the Mubarak government. How does the current government's response to your criticism compare with those governments? Is this worse than before?

HAMZAWY: Well, it's, to an extent, quite similar, in the sense of I continue to face ongoing defamation campaigns for my liberal views, which I did face before under Mubarak and under Morsi. Secondly, it's similar in the sense of attempts to restrict my capacity to reach out to Egyptians using media channels, using the press. So there are attempts to restrict freedom of expression as well. And add to that, that we are facing outright buildup of ultra-nationalistic ideas and views, which tend to suppress views which are different from what is being put forward.

So if you say: Well, guys, we really have to get along, all of us, they will accuse you of treason. If you say it's not the right thing to get a constitution out, which continues to place the military establishment above the state, they will tell you you are a traitor and you are looking for a way to defend the interests of foreign countries. And so nonsensical arguments are being circulated, and that is a new quality.

SIEGEL: While we in the West do get to hear from and read the thoughts of people like yourself, the real pro-democracy camp in Egypt is rather small, not very influential. Another military leader appears destined to become president of Egypt and, perhaps, hopes for a more democratic Egypt were misplaced a couple of years ago. What do you make of that reading?

HAMZAWY: Well, I mean, realistically, we have to come to an understanding of where our opportunities and entry points are. Yes, we are facing a public space which is putting and investing trust in the military establishment and in the military leader. And someone like me can continue saying but, well, guys, you are militarizing the state. You are pushing us away from democracy, but no one is listening. So I have to figure out where my entry points are. As a formal politics, should I run again for parliament or should I focus on informal politics: building grassroots activities and grassroots movements and initiatives.

But here, too, Robert, we have to realize that people are increasingly impatient. You get out to the streets and you participate in a peaceful march and people will scream at you. They are fed up to an extent. They mistrust politicians. They mistrust politics. And they tend to invest hopes in the one man, in the one hero, and in the one establishment which is a military establishment.

SIEGEL: Just one other question. Over the past several years, I've heard various Egyptians accuse the United States of keeping Hosni Mubarak in power and throwing Hosni Mubarak under the bus, supporting the military takeover from Mubarak and then supporting Mohammed Morsi, and then overthrowing Mohammed Morsi and supporting the military. I mean, first of all, what is - as you would perceive it - what is the United States doing right now in Egypt, and what should it do?

HAMZAWY: You know, the U.S. is not doing much in Egypt as of now. And let me tell you, by design, what we are looking at is bound to be a homegrown issue where external forces, be it international or regional, can only play limited roles. And instead of flip-flopping or promising much and not delivering, I believe more of a modest policy, more of a realistic policy, understanding that this is a local issue, a homegrown process, and then designing your entry points in a realistic sense. That is what the U.S. needs to do. The U.S. also has to mind the very fact that there is much negative press against the U.S. It's part of the hysteric media landscape we are facing.

SIEGEL: That's Egyptian political scientist, a former lawmaker, Amr Hamzawy, speaking with us from Cairo. Thanks a lot for talking with us once again.

HAMZAWY: Thank you very much, Robert.

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