Last March, lawyer Tarek Mahmoud filed a lawsuit against head of Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Violence and Torture Victims Aida Saifeddawla; president of United Group Nagad Bura’ee; Tamer Ali, a lawyer at Hisham Mubarak Center; head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information Gamal Eid; and founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Hussam Bahgat. He accused them of receiving foreign financing, and demanded that their headquarters be kept under surveillance and their names be included in the travel ban and arrival screening lists.

Last March, lawyer Tarek Mahmoud filed a lawsuit against head of Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Violence and Torture Victims Aida Saifeddawla; president of United Group Nagad Bura’ee; Tamer Ali, a lawyer at Hisham Mubarak Center; head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information Gamal Eid; and founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Hussam Bahgat. He accused them of receiving foreign financing, and demanded that their headquarters be kept under surveillance and their names be included in the travel ban and arrival screening lists.

Only one month prior, the Bani Mazar Juvenile Court in Minya sentenced four Coptic children aged 15-17 , to five years imprisonment and sent the youngest of them to a disciplinary institution. On May 27, however, they were released on bail of L.E 10,000 (US $1,126), pending investigation. The children are accused of defaming Islam and mocking Muslims’ praying rites due to a video clip of a play that went viral.

The clip condemned ISIS’ slaughter of Copts in Libya in February 2015. The teacher who supervised the show was sentenced to a three-year prison term. The clip was leaked from the teacher’s stolen mobile. Villagers then filed complaints and staged angry protests followed by sectarian violence against the teacher and a number of Coptic residents in the village. The violent confrontation culminated in banishing the teacher and his family.

In December 2015, an Egyptian court sentenced religious program presenter Islam Behairi to  one year in prison following an appeal against a previous five-year imprisonment sentence for charges of defamation against Islam. In early 2015, a group of lawyers lodged complaints against Behairi, accusing him of defaming Islamic religion through a program he presented on a private Egyptian satellite TV.

Whether accusing their neighbors of blasphemy or “breaking” other laws, Egyptian citizens suing one another has seen a stark increase in recent years.

Old tradition

Reem Saad, a researcher and professor of anthropology at the American University in Cairo, believes that citizens’ complaints against others are an old tradition. The state, she says, is not directly responsible for turning citizens into informers; it is a deep-rooted social attitude driven by a prevailing cultural concept of honest citizens’ responsibility for protecting Egypt.

Khaled Ali, human rights lawyer and former presidential candidate, argues that there are many motives and situations urging citizens to inform against each other. Some, he believes, are motivated by patriotism or an urge to uphold a particular political or ethical attitude. The motive could also be an expression of a certain intellectual tendency, or defense of religious or moral values. Some complaints aim to promote personal fame, while in others the complainant is motivated by another person or a certain official body. According to Ali, the law permits any individual to initiate legal action, but it is up to the prosecution to pursue a trial, and the court decides whether the legal action is worthy of litigation, its jurisdiction and whether or not there is interest or damages.

Incitement and standard of initiating a lawsuit

Similar cases also took place prior to the revolution. In May 2008, the State Council dismissed charges leveled against author Nawal Saadawi, requesting that she be included in arrival screening lists and denaturalized after she published a play entitled ‘The God Tenders His Resignation at the Summit Conference.’ The initiated lawsuit claimed that the play included defamation of the divinity, religion and the Quran. And in October 2011, an Egyptian court rejected a legal action lodged against actor Adel Imam, writers Waheed Hamed and Lenin Ramli, and film directors Nader Galal and Sharif Arafeh, in which they were accused of attacking Islam in their work. Religious groups demanded the pertinent movies be banned.

Ali maintains that the prosecution or the judiciary may resort to court based on their media interest or because the case is filed by a certain group. It may also be because of their political positions or intellectual affiliation. Although the right of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution, the limits of that right differ from one judge to another – the extent of judges’ interference in certain disputes is very extensive and is largely dependent on their thoughts and ideologies.

He believes that the state is directly and clandestinely or indirectly responsible for creating that situation. When a TV program prepared by the intelligence agency incites citizens to act in a certain way, it is a state action. A law like the Anti-Terrorism Law indirectly incites people and deters them. This is a form of control, pressure and intimidations to prevent any thoughts that stand contrary to the state’s policies.

Prosecuting imagination

In August 2014, a compensation lawyer named Hani Tawfik initiated a lawsuit accusing writer and journalist Ahmad Nagi and editor-in-chief of state-owned Akhbar Adab newspaper Tareq Taher of indecency, through the publication of a chapter of a book by Nagi entitled ‘Use of Life’.

During the proceedings, viewed by the defense as personal rather than legal litigation by the public prosecutor who demanded the implementation of maximum penalty, he argued that some people mistakenly thought that freedom, especially intellectual freedom, was not subject to any restrictive regulations or controls. As a result, they shocked human feelings, undermined high values, and caused mischief within their own community. The prosecutor depended on Article 46 of the Constitution on preservation of Egyptian cultural identity, proper conduct and ethical principles, in addition to some Quranic verses that speak about painful chastisement in this life and afterlife for those who spread evil.

The judge who acquitted the defendant at the first instance court relied on Article 67 of the Constitution that supports and encourages freedom of creativity and stands against implementation of punishments that deprive individuals of freedom for offenses perpetrated due to openness of literary, artistic or intellectual work. The words and expressions included in the literary work, which were considered by the prosecutor to be indecent, occur in the framework of a literary production and a general context of an imaginative story produced by the defendant.

When the case was brought before the court of appeal, however, a two-year imprisonment sentence was issued against Nagi, while Taher was fined L.E. 10,000. The judge based his decision on the elements of public decency outrage. According to him, the author used obscene expressions throughout the chapters of his literary work, and that the author disregarded the fact that intellectual freedom had limits that had to be respected. The judge argued that freedom had to be within the confines of the basic social components of the deep-rooted religion, traditions, and ethical values of Egyptian society. He further underscored that the author had violated those values by writing a venomous story and publishing its chapters in a state-owned newspapers.

Nagi’s defense appealed against the decision last April. According to Yasmeen Hossameddine, a human rights lawyer, a close friend of Nagi and member of the defense, Nagi thought at the early stages of the trial that the case was a mere joke and after quittance he dealt with the matter as an absurd coincidence. He firmly believed that the prosecutor personally hated him and that the punishment would at the most be a fine. Nagi was the first person to be imprisoned for publication charges in modern history. He is now serving his time at Tora Prison where he teaches jailed central security soldiers reading, writing and poetry. He has also created a literary club in his cell for other prisoners. His brother recently received a US creativity award on his behalf.

Taboo topics

Nagi’s lawyer Mahmoud Othman, a legal researcher at the Free Creativity Program of the Thought and Expression Freedom Foundation, has faced similar accusations during his work. In November 2015, lawyer Sameer Sabri filed a lawsuit demanding a TV program called Abla Fahita and another program be stopped on claims relating to public decency offenses. Another citizen brought a legal action against scenarist Ahmad Ashour on charges of contempt of court, and demanded to block the shooting of his TV serial because research proved that Raya and Sakina were not criminals but part of the liberation movement against the British, and that their names were defamed as punishment for their nationalist role.

Othman believes that the state intimidates any free creativity that deals with religion, sex, the state or the prestige of the ruling power. He does not rule out that Nagi’s case and other similar cases have political implications given the illogical accusations leveled against them. He adds that by so doing the state policies become a red line and creative works that criticize the state are intercepted. This is why they are prosecuting the Street Children band for publishing a satirical video.

Othman believes that the state disregards the litigation law which considers that direct personal interest or harm is the basis for initiating lawsuits. In regard to public decency cases, there is no personal harm, but the state adapts laws to combat creativity. Offenses without criminal intent, says Hossameddine, are not criminal offenses, so a person may not inform against a protest demonstration so long as it does not harm his or her interest.

The state has not set controls and criteria to define the meaning of an indecent action. It is therefore impossible to consider which literary and artistic works are vulgar or unfit because different persons and contexts have different views. Othman says resolving these disputes rests with the implementation of the Constitution given that no creative work may be described as criminal (indecent, in contempt, or defamatory to religions). Therefore, imprisonment terms for creativity and publication cases must be abolished, and no legal articles may be against publication and creativity, except for cases of incitement or discrimination. Even then, imprisonment may only be implemented when the perpetrated act involves violence or discrimination.

Biased legal system

Hossameddine suggests that the Judicial Authority Law does not permit judges to have political opinions or to reflect their personal beliefs on the cases brought before them. This law however is breached every day in courts of law. Besides, disputed lawsuits against discriminating judges are not examined. For example, all lawsuits filed against Judge Mohammed Shahata for misconduct cases have been dismissed although he has expressed his anti-revolution political views on several occasions while the proceedings were in session. This practice is an offense that violates the Judicial Authority Law and for which he must be removed from his post.

The same applies to some public prosecutors. “When the investigator asked me about the accusation leveled against Nagi, I said ‘public decency,’” says Hossameddine. “He said: ‘Had it been about religious defamation, I would have severely punished him.’ The prosecutor kept describing Nagi as dissolute and perverted. The appeal judge told the defense ‘What he wrote is improper and I am not concerned with the Constitution.’”

She further adds that many prosecutors tell lawyers that they receive their instructions from the national security body.

It is therefore important, argues Othman, that judges and prosecutors are trained to understand their positions within the state so that they do not reflect their personal affiliations and opinions on the considered cases. They should be objective, unbiased and subject to actual control.

Hossameddine derides the existing situation and says although the Muslim Brotherhood tried to commit similar violations, they feared popular anger. But the present authority that claims to be more liberated and civilized has proven to be more fascistic and radical than the Muslim Brothers. The president projects himself as an advocate of values and ethics, and an adherent of religion and religious values. But according to her, that tendency has political implications and a clear message: “Any act or expression must be controlled” because any type of freedom is likely to leave the door open for other more significant forms of freedom. The solution, therefore, will be to muzzle m