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Democratic Egypt takes illiberal view of free speech

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A major foreign affairs controversy unexpectedly spilled over into Canada late last month when Egypt’s prosecutor-general issued arrest warrants for two Canadian Coptic Christians over their alleged role in the making of the anti-Prophet Muhammad film Innocence of Muslims.

According to Canadian Press, Canadians Nader Fawzy and Jacques Attalla, along with several other Copts living in the United States, were accused of “offending Islam, insulting the Prophet Muhammad, inciting sectarian strife and jeopardizing Egypt’s peace and independence.”

Both deny any involvement with the film. And both fear for their safety and that of their families who could be targeted by Muslim extremists here.

The Toronto Star’s Rick Westhead also wrote about their plight, noting that in addition to the Egyptian government’s decree, Fawzy and Attalla “have also drawn the wrath of prominent imams in Egypt who have issued fatwas on both of them, urging Muslims anywhere in the world to behead them.”

Westhead drew a parallel to the Salman Rushdie case, in which Iran issued a death sentence against Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses in 1989.

One possible motive for the Egyptian government’s action against Fawzy is that, as Westhead explains, he’s an activist who has criticized the way Copts are discriminated against in Egypt and has published a book, The Persecutions, a history of Coptic Christianity, that angered the authorities who banned it in Egypt.

In a Sept. 24 editorial on this disturbing development, the Globe and Mail wrote that “Egypt appears to be trying to make the crime of ‘offending Islam’ a worldwide one.”

The Globe put Egypt’s intimidation in a broader context: “This is a strange approach for a nascent democracy, and a bad signal from the Muslim Brotherhood, which holds power… Since when does one democracy purport to tell people in other democracies that if they speak out in certain ways, they could be charged and even put to death?”

Just as Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, was about to depart for the United States to deliver a speech at the United Nations, New York Times correspondents reported that he “said the United States must respect the Arab world’s history and culture, even when that conflicts with western values.”

Days later, U.S. President Barack Obama had something to say about this.

During his Sept. 25 appearance at the UN General Assembly, Obama devoted two-thirds of his 4,000-word address to an explanation about (and plea for) what he called universal democratic values of freedom and tolerance underpinned by the rule of law.

Because of intolerance and violent reaction to the offensive video, Obama spoke of the “need for all of us to address honestly the tensions between the West and an Arab world moving to democracy.”

Invoking the words of former South African president Nelson Mendela, he said that democracy is not just about casting a ballot, but “respects and enhances the freedom of others,” and that involves tolerating views some of us strongly disagree with. Obama equated “true democracy” with “real freedom,” meaning individual rights such as free speech, “the freedom of citizens to speak their minds and assemble without fear.”

When he spoke at the UN the following day, Morsi rejected Obama’s broad endorsement of free speech. While he said that Egypt now embraces democracy and human rights and even “respects freedom of expression,” he emphasized that it cannot tolerate speech that insults and defames religion. The irony is that when he said free speech should never be allowed “to incite hatred against anyone… or one specific religion or cult,” he apparently ignored the fact that for years Egypt has promoted antisemitic conspiracy theories through its official and semi-official media among other sources.

One fear is that Morsi’s limit on free speech reveals a wider tendency toward intolerance and authoritarianism elsewhere in the region. Even Turkey, a non-Arab Muslim country that prides itself in upholding “secular” democratic values, has been moving in the direction of clamping down on free speech and currently has more journalists in jail than Iran and China combined.

We can only wait to see what happens in Egypt.

Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

This column appears in the Oct. 4 print issue of The CJN

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