The Banished Pharaoh: Lessons in freedom of expression

The 11th February 2011 marked a seminal moment for the right to freedom of expression: the day Hosni Mubarak resigned from his 30 year rule, in response to the expressed will of his people.

The country has been subject to emergency law since 1967. This authorised a number of restrictions on personal freedom of assembly and movement, sanctioned the surveillance of personal messages, and permitted the confiscation of publications. Egypt’s economic climate had deteriorated with increased poverty, rising prices, social exclusion and unemployment, food price inflation and low minimum wages. Two thirds of the country’s population are under 30, with this group comprising 90% of the Egypt’s unemployed. By contrast, personal enrichment and corruption was rife amongst the political elite. Reports suggest that the former president had misappropriated up to £40 billion during his reign, more than double the estimated amount that the notorious Bernard Madoff stole using his Ponzi Scheme.

Inspired by inspired by the overthrowing of Zine-al Abidine Ben Ali in nearby Tunisia and angry over their political and economic rights, the Egyptian people took to the streets. Support was galvanised and meetings organised using Facebook, Google instant messenger and Twitter. On 1 February, nearly 1 million protestors gathered around Tahir Square.

Mubarak continued to fight in the way that many autocrats do: by restricting the dissenters’ ability to communicate with each other and the outside world. Mobile phone service was cut off, TV satellites were jammed and internet access was blocked for nearly the entire population. Bloggers who organised the protests online were arrested.

Yet the protests continued despite these restrictions. Egyptians organised marches using flyers and word of mouth. Continued international media attention was ensured using dial-up modems and fax machines to communicate. In the streets, tensions ran high and at least 365 people died and 5,500 were injured. But the Egyptians did not give up hope.  On the 18th day of protest, after his attempts at concessions were unanimously rejected by the masses, Mubarak resigned and fled Cairo.

Despite his best efforts to censor the media, squash the protest with force or make attempts at concessions, Mubarak proved Alfred Griswold’s theory correct:

“In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost.  The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.”

Mubarak’s departure provides Egypt with a chance for a democracy, where free speech and association contribute to maintaining the rule of law. The triumph of the protestors collective voice over their ruler has sparked a new surge of pro-democracy protests in Yemen, Algeria, Lybia, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Iran and Syria.  Inspired by the Tunisia and Egypt, a new dawn is breaking in the Middle East, where its citizens speak out with increasing confidence that they will be heard.

However, for those of us who enjoy democratic government and freedom of expressions, there are still lessons to be learned from Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

Too often for human rights supporters, much work is done, for little reward. Changing attitudes and working towards securing human rights can take years, with sometimes very little progress appearing to have taken place. When such a tangible and positive change occurs, we ought to take a moment or two to celebrate. In spirit, we should be with the millions of Egyptians taking part in the Victory March: their success is not merely political; it is a triumph for freedom of expression.

We all have our gripes about our government. In the UK, popular complaints include the NHS’s performance, the state of the education system, the bank bailouts, rising unemployment figures, student tuition fees and pension rights. However, we tend to forget that our government was democratically elected and that a change may be achieved every 4 years in a general election, as opposed to every 30. Our free press and Parliamentary debate ensure the government is held to account; our courts ensure that corrupt MPs are brought to justice.  As the first ever Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion remarked, the test of democracy is freedom of criticism. Too often we take this freedom for granted. 

Recently, there has been an increasing mistrust of human rights. Politicians and the media have been peddling the idea that human rights favour those who least deserve them: registered sex offenders and serving prisoners being recent examples. During these impassioned human rights debates, we can often miss an important point: by engaging in these discussions, we are exercising our constitutional right to freedom of expression.  This right should be cherished, however wrong we believe our ideological opponents to be. On this note, the frequently quoted maxim seems apt,

“I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”




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