The State of the Law of Defamation in Egypt

Looking through the headlines today, I found this article that made me swallow my gum. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Egyptian cinema, Adel Imam is one of its biggest stars. Whether he makes a good or bad movie, his movies are a common topic of discussion in Egypt. His stature in Egypt and the Arab world borders on legend.

Mr. Adel Imam, Egyptian Comedian and Actor

A few words on Adel Imam: I’m not a die-hard fan of his movies. He’s a funny guy, and his brand of comedy has certainly made me laugh before. So my defence of him is not based on personal convictions that he is one of the greatest comedians in history and that no one has a right to accuse him of anything. But this issue has to do more with the state of defamation and blasphemy laws in Egypt.

In my other life, I am an editorial writer. In an article I wrote last week, I talked about the need for Egypt to begin formulating its defamation and blasphemy laws in a more coherent and understandable fashion, because this political environment is becoming too unpredictable. I quote myself in saying:

“A coherent and established policy that protects an Egyptian’s right to openly criticize religious and political leaders will go a long way in ensuring that no elected or appointed official can take away free speech from citizens. This is where the courts can step in and contribute to the Egyptian revolution: the courts must move to protect free speech rights from this point forward. In addition, there needs to be a constitutional guarantee to free speech for all Egyptians in the new constitution, a provision that was protected under the previous 1971 constitution in Article 47. Putting these guarantees in the new constitution will ensure that politics does not interfere with the rule of law, especially if the political landscape changes so drastically that parliament becomes too unpredictable”.

And now here we are. Adel Imam is being charged with insulting Islam just when the Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood forces are beginning to tighten their grip on Parliament. The political environment was ripe to begin this lawsuit, and the moment will shed some light on how the country will proceed from here. Will the courts move to protect civil rights, or will they uphold a legal system whose legitimacy has been cast into doubt in the Egyptian Revolution?

While I am no expert in defamation law in Egypt (or defamation law in general), Egypt’s laws are nebulous. But I think the ambiguity of the laws is meant to inspire fear: if you don’t know what is off-limits, you will likely not venture out and try to figure out what those laws are.

I don’t want to venture and guess what the court’s ruling will be in this situation, but I suspect the court will uphold this conviction. The courts are not ready to grapple with the already difficult boundaries of defamation and blasphemy, and the insistent hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis will not let up until those laws are consistent with their interpretation of Islam. I have to note also the slippery slope that will happen from this point onwards: if you cannot criticize Islam (or any religion), you cannot criticize men of religion (though I doubt the same protection would be afforded to Christian leaders). It’s a slippery slope, but it can be curbed if the courts take a stand against what the Salafis are trying to do.

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