May 20, 2013

The sight of hundreds of thousands of Arabs marching on the streets of a number of Arab countries, demanding their dignity and rights, will remain among the iconic images of the twenty-first century. The willingness of so many citizens to take such tremendous risks to their own lives, with thousands dying for their freedom, stunned a world long accustomed to the image of the resigned, subordinate, cynical Arab masses.

Some people have had their head put to the ground so you can raise your head up high. 

Yet, even in countries that have succeeded in dislodging autocratic regimes and holding democratic elections, there has been a disconnect between the public’s passionate demonstrations for freedom and their commitment to the legislative and institutional reforms needed to protect their rights against future government abuses. There is widespread buy-in for restraints on the power of security forces, but little recognition among citizens that free speech and independent civil society are the bulwarks of freedom from tyranny.

Egypt offers the best example of this disconnect. The newly elected Islamist leadership has expressed its commitment to ending police impunity, unfair trials, and arbitrary detention. These were hallmarks of Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year rule under its notorious Emergency Law, which allowed for indefinite detention without charge and trials by special security courts that provided few due process protections. Muslim Brotherhood members for decades found themselves enduring brutal arrests, torture, and imprisonment for the crime of belonging to an “illegal organization.” So it is no surprise the new government allowed the Emergency Law to expire (recently the government declared a state of emergency for 30 days in parts of the country) and proposed a draft constitution with strong protections against torture and arbitrary detention. In my meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood’s senior leadership, they made clear that curbing police torture and prison abuses would be among their top commitments. In the same vein, the Muslim Brotherhood’s experience of direct abuse at the hands of the Mubarak government has led to endorsement of accountability for the killings of protesters in the lead up to the overthrow of Mubarak.

Yet on the issue of free speech the new government has relied on restrictions that the Mubarak government routinely used to muzzle government critics. A new constitution written by the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly was approved in a referendum with more than 60 percent voting in favor, though only about 30 percent of the electorate voted. The constitution includes a general commitment to protect freedom of ”thought and opinion,” but then bans “insults” to individuals and prophets. And this is no theoretical danger: President Mohamed Morsi’s government authorities over the past year have investigated or prosecuted at least 22 people for “insulting” the president or the judiciary.

In Tunisia as well, the interim governments moved to investigate the attacks on demonstrators during the uprising and to prosecute security forces implicated in numerous deaths and injuries. The draft constitution strongly affirmed protections against torture and unlawful detention as well. But on free speech, the country is tied in knots. The governments have used laws inherited from the deposed president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to prosecute several people for speech deemed “immoral” or “harmful to public order,” such as sculptors and bloggers, but also for “impugning the reputation of the military.”

Again and again in my decades of observation and meetings in the region, I have seen widespread support for limits on speech, not just in Egypt, but throughout the Middle East. Many citizens from a wide cross-section of society see no contradiction between the right to speak critically of government officials (or their religion) and the “right” of officials (and even institutions) to punish those who allegedly insult them. Much of the Arab public cares little for the fact that international human rights law rejects “insult” as a legitimate limit on speech, because it easily can be used to stifle critics and opponents and to restrict the vigorous public debate that is essential for government accountability. Even in countries like Morocco and Tunisia, where new constitutions broadly assert respect for free speech, the authorities continue to jail people for allegedly insulting or defaming the police or government officials.

The challenge for human rights advocates in this new era is to persuade the Arab public that there can be no freedom without broad space for political speech, however obnoxious. It’s far from certain, despite the sacrifices made for freedom during the Arab Uprisings, that the public recognizes how important this issue is to their future.

Sarah Leah Whitson is Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.