Is There Freedom Of Expression In Egypt?

When President Obama delivers his much anticipated address to the Muslim world in Cairo on Thursday, many in Egypt will judge the speech by what he has to say about human rights and democracy. Human rights activists say Egypt has a record of rounding up opponents, and torture in Egyptian jails is common.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama spends tonight on a farm that belongs to the King of Saudi Arabia. Tomorrow he speaks at a university in Cairo. Along the way he'll face the same challenge as many of his predecessors.

INSKEEP: It's how to approach governments that are friendly to the United States but not democratic. The president's speech in Egypt will come in a country with a record of jailing opposition leaders.

And we begin this morning with NPR's Deborah Amos in Cairo.

DEBORAH AMOS: Browse through Cairo's newspapers, there are about a hundred on the newsstands everyday, privately owned as well as government controlled. You can read about government corruption, criminal police tactics, even scathing criticism of high government officials. Egypt's lively print media is a sign of democratic reforms, insists government spokesman Hossam Zaki.

Mr. HOSSAM ZAKI (Government Spokesman, Egypt): The president never uttered a word about it and said always that we want to maintain the freedom of our press.

AMOS: But human rights groups in the U.S. and in Cairo report a different story. Real freedom of expression is still largely outlawed. For example, a six-month jail sentence for a journalist who reported that the health of Egypt's president was deteriorating. There is harsher treatment for political opponents of the president and ruling party.

(Soundbite of hammering)

AMOS: Leading political dissident, Ayman Nour is at home attending the burns on his forehead. His glasses saved his eyes from a homemade flamethrower shot by an assailant on a motorcycle last week. In the 2005 elections Nour ran against President Hosni Mubarak. Soon after, he was charged with forgery in what was widely seen as a politically motivated accusation. He was released in February after nearly four years in jail. Now he says he was better-off behind bars.

Mr. AYMAN NOUR (Political Dissident; Chairman, El Ghad Party, Egypt): (Through Translator) I'm not allowed to work. I'm not allowed to touch my own money. I'm not allowed to travel unless I have a permit beforehand. I'm not allowed to talk to the Egyptian media.

AMOS: But he has been invited, along with other members of the secular opposition, to Cairo University for President Obama's speech on Thursday and so have members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood - the more powerful Islamist opponents of Mubarak's long rule. With the organization banned from politics, members run as independents in elections in 2005, winning 88 of 444 elected seats in parliament. The crackdowns began soon after, says political analyst Issandr el Amrani.

Mr. ISSANDR EL AMRANI (Political Analyst, Egypt): They suffered tremendously for the last five years, since the last election. You've probably had at least a thousand arrests a year - with what to show for it?

AMOS: Ibrahim al-Hudaybi is an advisor to the Brotherhood's online Web site.

Mr. IBRAHIM AL-HUDAYBI (Online Advisor, Muslim Brotherhood): Over the past couple of years, yes, the brotherhood has made some, I would say, even major political mistakes. They did not expect the success that came in 2005.

AMOS: The grandson of a former supreme leader of the Brothers, Hudaybi gives a frank assessment of its performance in parliament.

Mr. AL-HUDAIBI: They were not yet ready to act as actually the largest political player in the country with all the people who're waiting for the tiniest mistake and so forth.

AMOS: The mistakes, says Hudaybi, include angering Egypt's Christian minority over the rights of citizens. More often Islamist politicians have taken conflicting, even confusing stands on major issues. But in an open political system, says Hudaybi, political parties can learn from mistakes.

Mr. AL-HUDAYBI: Next time the number of seats may be as low as zero or may be as high as hundred. That depends on when we have free and fair elections.

AMOS: Young political activist ask that question too? Hossam al Hamlawi(ph) is a blogger, part of the latest political movement on the Web. Hamlawi uses technology to report on a wave of labor strikes across the country.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. HOSSAM AL HAMLAWI (Blogger): I was snapping pictures and I was using my mobile phone to tweet and send updates, including the police harassment that finally ended the strike.

AMOS: Hamlawi is part of a new generation yearning for reform in a repressive system. But he says the most likely successor to the 81-year-old Mubarak is the president's son.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. HAMLAWI: I'm not sitting and waiting till Mubarak dies and his son Alaa succeeds him because I do not believe change is going to happen by another Mubarak, you know, I mean running the country.

AMOS: Egypt's democracy movement is broad, far from united, but in agreement that change is long overdue.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Cairo.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: