Egypt’s Crackdown Belies Constitution as It Nears Approval
Poll workers in Cairo sorted ballots on Wednesday, the last day of a referendum in which a revised constitution received overwhelming approval.Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times
By David D. Kirkpatrick
Jan. 16, 2014
CAIRO — A new constitution revised after the military takeover was headed to ratification by more than 95 percent of the votes cast, official Egyptian news media said Thursday, even as the authorities stepped up a crackdown on journalists and dissenters that human rights advocates said belied the charter’s promises of free speech.
Rights groups said the juxtaposition underscored the persistent doubts about the government’s pledges to steer Egypt toward a new era of freedom and democracy after the military’s ouster last summer of the first fairly elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The landslide approval of the charter now sets the stage for a presidential bid by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the defense minister who removed Mr. Morsi.
Preliminary tabulations indicated a more than 95 percent yes vote and a turnout of about 38 percent of the electorate. If confirmed, that would mean that more voters turned out and far more voted in approval than in the referendum for the previous constitution, which was drafted by an Islamist-led panel and approved in December 2012. That charter was ratified by only 64 percent of voters, with about a third of the electorate voting.
But instead of relaxing in the confidence of its victory, the government appeared to lash out with new force against its critics. On Wednesday night, the police briefly jailed a camera crew for The Associated Press on suspicion of working for Al Jazeera, which offers the only Arabic-language television news coverage available in Egypt that is critical of the military takeover.
The government also issued travel bans against as many as 20 opponents, including Islamist lawyers and lawmakers, left-leaning activists like Alaa Abd El Fattah (who is already in jail after being accused of organizing a demonstration) and former liberal legislators, including the celebrity-intellectual Amr Hamzawy, who was forced to cancel speaking engagements in the United States, including one at Yale.
Supporters of Egypt’s ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, confronted security forces Thursday near Cairo University in Giza.Ahmed Omar/Associated Press
State news media reported that the travel ban had been issued by a panel of the Cairo appeals court, which is investigating charges of either insulting the judiciary or making prejudicial statements about a pending court case — both of which are crimes under selectively enforced Egyptian laws.
Then, on Thursday, the government prosecution office said in a statement that it was charging three detained Al Jazeera journalists with operating unregistered equipment and “broadcasting false news” that would “harm national security,” “disturb the public order” or “damage the country’s reputation and harm financial confidence in it.”
Two of the journalists have extensive experience at Western news organizations: Mohamed Fadel Fahmy has worked for CNN and contributed to The New York Times, and Peter Greste is an Australian who won a Peabody Award last year working for the BBC in Somalia. The other is Baher Mohamed, a producer. The three are referred to in the Egyptian press as “the Marriott cell,” after the hotel where they were arrested in a suite Al Jazeera has used since the government closed its Cairo bureau.
Representatives of a group of more than 30 international news organizations, including The Times, signed a letter this week calling for the release of the three journalists — who had been detained without charges in solitary confinement since Dec. 29 — as well as any others now imprisoned in Egypt. (At least seven are now in jail, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy group; it says that since the military takeover in July, the government has detained at least 44 journalists, sometimes for months.)
Responding to the letter, the prosecution defended such incarcerations. While “imposing restrictions on freedom of speech is prohibited,” its statement said, “the condition for that is preserving national security and the highest interests of the country.”
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The prosecutors even appeared to threaten other journalists against covering the case. “The public prosecution points out that the Egyptian penal code criminalizes publicizing matters that may influence the work of the judges or the members of the public prosecution in the cases before them and influence the public opinion to the favor of any party,” the statement said, urging journalists not to “contradict what’s proven in the fair judicial investigations, which would only damage the country’s reputation.”
Justifying the long incarcerations without hearings or formal charges, the statement said that some of the defendants had “confessed to investigators that they had joined the terrorist group” the Muslim Brotherhood.
An Al Jazeera spokesman denied that anyone had confessed to anything, lauded the integrity of the imprisoned journalists and called the statement “a prejudgment of an ongoing investigation.”
Egyptian law, however, appears to give prosecutors broad latitude to arrest journalists for publishing or broadcasting reports deemed disruptive. An antiterrorism statute provides a penalty of up to five years in prison for anyone convicted of promoting in print or broadcast any groups seeking to “suspend the provisions of the Constitution” or “damage national unity of peace.”
Asked repeatedly this week if publishing an interview with members of the Muslim Brotherhood — last year’s dominant political party, recently declared a terrorist group — might be a crime, government officials declined to answer, saying they were still consulting with prosecutors about how to respond.
Morsi supporters run for cover as Egypt's security forces shoot tear gas to disperse a gathering near Cairo University in Giza.Ahmed Omar/Associated Press
“It is rather breathtaking, it is shocking, it is so manifestly directed against the very rudiments of the free press,” said Joe Stork, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group. “There is this disjuncture between the wording of the constitution and the insistence that ‘we are on a path to democracy’ on the one hand, and on the other this kind of behavior that just gets more and more outrageous every day.”
Although the charter approved in this week’s referendum declares at one point that freedom of expression is absolute, scholars note that it also includes many broad exceptions authorizing punishments for vaguely defined offenses like “inciting violence” or “dishonoring individuals.”
“It is no better in terms of fundamental rights” than the previous Egyptian constitutions, including the one approved in 2012, said Zaid al-Ali, a legal scholar in Cairo at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
The most notable change in the charter is increasing the power and immunity of the three government institutions that contributed the most to Mr. Morsi’s overthrow: the army, the police and the judiciary.
Egyptian and international monitors have not yet rendered their assessments on the referendum, but the landslide margin appeared plausible, in part because there were almost no voices critical of the charter to be found in the news media or the streets. The Brotherhood, now the main opposition, boycotted the vote. The government also declared the group illegal, silenced its media outlets, arrested its leaders, seized its assets and criminalized membership.
An analysis in the official news media on Thursday called the results “a breaking blow” to the Brotherhood because it denied the argument that only Mr. Morsi, as Egypt’s first freely elected president, had the “legitimacy of the ballot box.” Now, the analysis promised, will come “transformation from the phase of the Egypt of the revolution to the phase of Egypt the state.”
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