It's official: Freedom of expression is sacred (in Egypt)

Things are far from perfect in Egypt, but a recent court ruling against the banning of 51 websites, based on the Egyptian Constitution's defense of freedom of expression, was a breath of fresh air. MENASSAT.COM's Syria correspondent – himself a lawyer – analyzes the verdict, and dreams of one day seeing Syria's courts follow the Egyptian example.
By Abdullah Suleiman Ali
Egypt, Juge Murad. R.R.
Judge Abdul Fattah Murad. © R.R.

It was not quite the outcome judge Abdul Fattah Murad had in mind when, on February 28 of last year, he asked the Egyptian authorities to ban more than fifty websites, claiming that they threatened national security, insulted the president, and furthermore defamated his own person.

When the responsible government branches refused to abide by the judge's demands, Abdul Fattah Murad brought the case before Egypt's Administrative Judiciary Court.

But on December 29, 2007, "Case Nr. 15575" (a.k.a. "the case of the 51 websites") made history when the Administrative Judiciary Court ruled against judge Abdul Fattah Murad, based on Article 47 of the Egyptian constitution, which states that "freedom of expression is sacred."

Two principles governed the historical verdict, which was ten months in the making. The first one was that the government is allowed to ban websites but only when they genuinely endanger national security or the supreme interest of the state. The second one was that cursing, insults and defamation can not be considered as valid reasons to ban a website, even if they are subject to criminal or civil liability.

When reading the court's decision, one notices immediately that the court ruled with the Constitution in mind, and that it tried to get to the essence of the Constitution, as it was intended by the people who wrote it.

The Court based its ruling on Article 47 on the Constitution, which states, “Freedom of expression is sacred. Every citizen has the right to express his opinion, verbally or in print or through any available means, respecting the law, self-criticism, constructive-criticism to ensure the well-being of the state."

(It is worth noting that this article is the same as article 38 of the Syrian Constitution.)

In a thorough explanation of its ruling, the Court boldly declared freedom of expression is the essential, and that the restrictions imposed by the legislator on that freedom contradict the constitution, which guarantees the protection of freedom of speech, and thus should rarely be used, except for emergencies.

In accordance with that, the Court considered that the administration’s rejection of the judge’s demand to ban the websites shows that the administration leaned towards the Court's own interpretation of freedom of speech, and that the emergency exception did not apply to this case.

Article 19 of the International Declaration of Human rights states that everyone “has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and import information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”, as long as it abides by the law.

The Court noted that Article 49 of the Egyptian Constitution was in accordance with the international declaration of human rights.

The Court did acknowledge a constitutional gap in dealing with websites; Egyptian law does not mention websites and has not set any rules for banning websites.

In this regard, the Court stated that "this constitutional lack does not deny the right of the government to ban these websites, when they threaten the national security or the interests of the state, considering the power of the government to impose administrative restrictions to protect the general order reflected in the general security, general health and general peace."

But in the case of judge Murad's demand, taking into consideration the constitutional gap and respecting the rule of priorities in case of conflict, the Court ruled in favor of freedom of expression.

The Court took into consideration that the accusations of defamation could have a legal sequel in the criminal and civil courts, but ruled that they were not sufficient reason to ban the websites.

The ruling of the Egyptian Court is a reminder of how dire the situation is in Syria, where more than a hundred websites have been banned in the past few months on the mere force of a Memorandum issued by the Minister of Communications. The Memorandum allows for the banning of websites without the need to offer proof of defamation or to pass through the judicial system.

The Egyptian ruling, by contrast, is a true expression of the legislator’s will and is  thoroughly explained. We can only hope that our own judiciary will one day follow the example of the Egyptians, and choose the side of freedom of expression, in accordance with the Constitution.