The second anniversary of Egypt’s revolution brought with it significant violence, a state of emergency in three cities, and a welcomed moment of “back from the brink” political unity. Today, opposing groups from across the political spectrum (including Coptic Christians and members of the Muslim Brotherhood) gathered for talks facilitated by the grand imam of Al-Azhar and denounced violence in a signed declaration.
This comes on the heels of defense minister and top general Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s recent warning that “The continuation of this struggle between the different political forces…could lead to the collapse of the state.” Although this political holding-of-hands is admirable, it does not change the reality that Egypt is being pulled apart by radically different visions of the future on core issues such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the role of women in society, and the role of religion in the legal and political system.
This week, seven young Egyptian men and women visited my office in New York, and it was readily apparent that they are struggling with these very issues. They were visiting the U.S. as part of a State Department delegation–their prize for winning a U.S. Embassy-sponsored contest to make a minute-long film featuring a “hidden hero.”
Their short films reflect a range of Egypt’s most pressing social issues. One honors a teacher’s work and emphasizes the importance of education to Egypt’s future; another praises the efforts of a female entrepreneur who only has a primary school education; the third film highlights the work of an activist raising awareness about sexual harassment. The fourth features a young woman determined to honor the memory of people killed in the October 2011 Maspero massacre (her fiancé was among the dead), where the Egyptian army brutally cracked down on Coptic Christian protesters.
Most of the filmmakers (and accompanying heroes) discussed the importance of independent media. One man lamented his experience working in television during the Mubarak regime. He said that although he worked for a minor channel, state security representatives would regularly call demanding that they not air certain subjects. After the revolution, they definitely had more freedom, but now under Morsi, independent media is coming under attack once again. However, there was disagreement among the filmmakers about whether the situation for journalists and free media had improved or deteriorated under Morsi (although the recently passed constitution might not bode well for free press).
The discussion in the room became more heated when I asked the group whether Egypt should have a law against blasphemy. We discussed the Innocence of Muslims, the insulting film that provoked protests throughout the Muslim world (including Egypt) this September, as an example of blasphemy. In November, an Egyptian court sentenced seven expatriate Coptic Christians to death in absentia for their role in making the film, a sentence that was approved on Tuesday by Egypt’s Grand Mufti. While the new Egyptian constitution contains a provision against blasphemy, it is not entirely clear how it will be used going forward. One of the filmmakers expressed concern that his friend is being sued in court simply for sharing a link to the Innocence of Muslims film.
Nevertheless, he and the other filmmakers and activists agreed that some kind of blasphemy law should be implemented. They didn’t think it would be hard to identify what is blasphemy and what is not. Only one person in the group spoke out against a blasphemy law, insisting that free speech is not a matter of what the majority wants: “Free means free, absolutely free.” As this participant wisely noted, no matter what laws a government passes, people who want to insult will insult—legislation against free speech is not the answer. My guess is that if the others in the group have the opportunity to keep making films, they too will come to have a deeper appreciation of what it means to protect freedom of expression. In the meantime, they—and the rest of Egypt—will continue arguing.