Media and human rights in Egypt after the uprising

BEIRUT - We're talking revolution in Egypt, and pessimism and optimism are duking it out. For these couple of hours, a hotel meeting room in Beirut is the forum for a handful of Egypt's human rights luminaries to assess the trajectory of their country's chaos.

I am at the general meeting of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX). Catchy titles have never been the strong point of civil society groups, but don't let the boring moniker fool you.

If the global human rights firing line were Hollywood, pretty much everyone here would be walking the red carpet (myself excluded). All present stand up for critical speech against great odds in Uganda, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Congo, Yemen -- you name it.

And there's something for Canada to crow about here, because this networked group of freedom front-liners is tended and nurtured between meets by their Canuck member, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. I'm one of them, which is how I got my place at the table.

But this session is for Egypt's media rights leaders, and there are many threads to untangle. Does that country's army have its own agenda? Will the masses stay engaged? And ominously at this confab of journalistic free expression defenders, will big-monied media be reborn as a vehicle for any of several possible counter-revolutionary scenarios?

Renowned blogger and journalist Nora Younis is the pessimist at the table. She was right there back in 2004 when web activism went beyond the chat room. While pundits hail Egypt's Internet uprising, Younis recalls how effectively state repression kept up. Now, in Egypt, the prime minister has a Twitter account, and the army exclusively uses Facebook for all its announcements.

Writing the word "military" isn't against the law as it was before the revolution, but researching the misdeeds of the army is beyond touchy. One real danger Younis sees is that the "structures for defending press freedom aren't yet there," though, as a member of the new National Coalition for Media Freedom, she is certainly working on it. The soft launch of the org's website (ncmf.info) just went up on Monday, June 5.

Gamal Eid, veteran lead defence lawyer in many of Egypt's most important human rights cases, says current violations "even exceed what we experienced before the revolution." Yet he's pulling for the optimist side; the army, he says, reacts positively to public pressure.

The army's special place in the nation's psyche is a recurring theme, and Eid has come up with an interesting strategy to address this fact. In his current campaign, he encourages bloggers and journalists to criticize the military tribunals (in which protesters are tried) in a pro-army context.

"We differentiate between the army and the military tribunals so it doesn't hurt the credibility of the army," he says. It has been a success, and Eid is undaunted by the fact that 20 or 25 per cent of critics get hauled in for questioning. In a post-dictator period, everything is relative.

In fact, the defence lawyer feels that one of the problems for civil society is that the most important organizations on the ground are geared to confrontation when the situation calls for conversation and dialogue. "Some of my friends would be surprised to hear me say we have a good interior minister," he says.

Journalist Khaled Al-Sergany sees the situation similarly and says that when sitting in on tribunals, one can witness the uncertainty of officers. "We can't turn the government and the military into enemies," he says. "We need to work with them and listen to them."

Appeal lawyer Rawda Ahmed concurs, saying that because the situation is so unresolved, it's important to be in process with authorities. Her organization was invited by the minister of communication to discuss new media laws and regulations. At the end of the conversation, in which Eid also participated, the minister confided that he didn't know whether to push ahead in Parliament or wait until the election.

They suggested that he publish the proposed law on the Internet and solicit comments. To their surprise, that's what he did. Don't get Eid wrong, though. He is clear that every member of civil society must keep one foot in Tahrir Square and one in the office.

Sherif Azer of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, a younger activist who remembers the military mentality from his own army days, is also not fearful about the military's political weight. "They are very sensitive to protests and criticism," he says. "Once people are on the streets and there is a campaign against one of their decisions, they'll withdraw that decision."

But there's the rub. Younis is not sure activists will be able to mobilize endlessly. Sentiments are changing, she feels, and the populace is getting tired of the atmosphere of upheaval. The revolution needs to deliver something that really makes a difference.

Take the minimum wage. Demonstrators asked for a raise to 1,200 pounds from the current 150, she points out, but the minister of finance raised it only to 700 a month. As well, the uprising "gave a hard fist to the police," but there is no police reform, and, says Younis, there is a security vacuum, so people will be begging for their presence.

And what role will the non-state mainstream media that is reconfiguring itself play in forming public opinion? Big dollars are heading for satellite channels. The perception in Egypt is that Gulf money is going there, says Younis, and many channels are in the offing before there is a process for vetting, transparency and a code of ethics. That is a much bigger worry at the table than radical Islam.

"Islamists are part of our society," says Eid, "but not the majority." He feels the worry is a Western fixation. Last Friday, June 3, the Muslim Brotherhood and military council tried to pressure people to stop the Friday protests, he says. Instead, a million came out to support civil society and democracy.

Younis's caution is really smart, but so is Eid's hopefulness, which is far from blind. They all expect the revolution will unfold for years to come. And yet, at the same time, every minute counts.

Despite their differing assessments, panelists agree on the role of international assistance. Eid would like to see organizations working with the European Commission become aware of Egypt's issues so that when the EU talks to Egyptian officials, human rights can be raised.

But there are straightforward needs, too. Younis sums them up as exchange and translation -- translation into Arabic not only of laws and books, but also of films, most of which are available only in English or Spanish. "Docs appeal to the younger generation," she says, and translation "will influence not only Egyptians, but the rest of the Arab world as well."

No one knows how the process will unfold. Reform is working in parallel with the traditional political process -- sometimes very fast, sometimes slow. "We need to be working in tandem on many things. We need to be ready," says Eid.

EGYPT WISH LIST: The transitional government of Egypt should:

- Abolish the Emergency Law, which allows authorities to detain people without charge.

- Rescind the new strike and demonstration law, which bans protests that "obstruct" state institutions.

- Abolish penal code provisions on "insulting public authorities'' and "spreading false information."

- Revoke the Assembly Law, which requires gatherings to disperse if ordered by authorities.

- Amend the Associations Law to allow NGOs to be established without government approval.

- Establish civilian oversight of the police force.

- Stop trying civilians in military courts.

From Human Rights Reform An Urgent Priority, Human Rights Watch, June 7.

This article was first published in NOW Magazine.

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