(Original story at The New York Times here.)
Although this was apparently an attempt by the military dictatorship in Egypt to stifle freedom of expression, I would like to remind readers that in some countries, some institutions are beyond reproach. For examples, in Thailand, it is considered lese-majeste (and a very serious crime) to insult the king; in the United States, it is a felony to threaten the President; in Singapore and in Egypt, contempt of court is a serious and punishable offense.
Egypt Says Twitter Post by Liberal Was Crime
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK JAN. 19, 2014
CAIRO — A prosecutor on Sunday charged one of Egypt’s most prominent liberal intellectuals with insulting the judiciary because he posted a message on Twitter criticizing a court ruling against three American nonprofits that promote democracy.
The intellectual, Amr Hamzawy, a political scientist and former lawmaker, was charged along with two dozen others — including liberals, Islamists, and the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Coming a day after the adoption of a new Constitution, the charges offered a glimpse of how the military-led government may apply the Constitution’s porous free-speech provisions and suggested that it may intensify its pressure on dissenters.
The crime of insulting the judiciary is a longstanding element of Egyptian law that inherently violates Western norms of free expression. Mr. Morsi, who is already on trial on several other charges, was charged on Sunday because, in a speech as president, he accused a judge of colluding in electoral fraud.
But the case against Mr. Hamzawy stands out because of his stature as a leading liberal, the ephemeral nature of his Twitter message, and the inconsistency of punishing him for a criticism many others also made.
“It is absurd,” said Samer S. Shehata, an expert on Egyptian politics at the University of Oklahoma. “He is a liberal, longhaired, intellectual type, the best of a particular type of intellectual in Egypt, who poses a threat to no one.”
“This is just another example of the government trying to silence all criticism and dissent in Egypt right now, whether it is Islamist or liberal,” Dr. Shehata said. “Anyone who would question the current rulers is subject to this kind of persecution.”
When a nationalist euphoria gripped Egypt after the military takeover last summer and the new government began a bloody crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s Islamist supporters, Mr. Hamzawy was among the few liberals to speak out, even calling the military’s actions a form of fascism.
But the charges filed against him on Sunday date to early June, when a judge convicted 43 employees of five Western-backed nonprofit groups of receiving illegal foreign financing and plotting to destabilize Egypt. Three of the groups — the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and Freedom House — are financed by the United States government with a mandate to help promote democracy.
The court ruled in June that the groups’ true aim was to “undermine Egypt’s national security and lay out a sectarian, political map that serves United States and Israeli interests.”
“The U.S. — fearing democracy ushered in by Egypt’s popular revolt — has used funding to take the revolution off its path,” it said.
“Funding is a new form of control and dominance and is considered a soft colonialism that is less costly than military arms,” the verdict continued, accusing the United States of seeking “to shake the security and stability of the receiving countries that are meant to be weakened and dismantled.” (All the defendants either fled the country or received suspended jail sentences.)
American officials disputed the charges, noting that the United States spends far more supporting the Egyptian military, $1.3 billion a year, than on nonmilitary aid to Egypt, about $250 million. Also, almost every independent rights group in Egypt has relied on foreign financing in violation of previously unenforced laws.
Mr. Hamzawy scoffed at the ruling. “Verdict in case of foreign funding of CS shocking, transparency lacking, facts undocumented & politicization evident,” he wrote on Twitter, using initials for “civil society.”
Many people who later backed the military takeover made similar statements at the time. And on Sunday, after Mr. Hamzawy was charged, Twitter users began reposting his message in a gesture of solidarity.
Mr. Hamzawy, who has been heavily criticized here for raising alarms about the crackdown on Islamists, responded in newspaper columns, “I am paying the price of being a true liberal.”