National Councils in Egypt: Regulatory Bodies on Institutions or Citizens?

Thursday 19 September 201901:04 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية

The reason for the existence of national councils and supreme councils in Egypt is ambiguous and questionable. These institutions are supposed to be independent of the authorities since they were established as non-governmental legal entities, but are in fact an additional organ facilitating the repressive practices of the Egyptian authorities. Instead of acting as a watchdog over government institutions, the councils monitor citizens and declare their allegiance to the government explicitly. These councils have become an authority over society itself, with all those who criticize or oppose the state receiving the wrath of these councils.

The National Council for Women and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation are prime examples of the use of public opinion to consolidate power. Egypt's Supreme Council for Media Regulation has banned anchorwoman Reham Said from appearing in any media for a year. The decision came after a complaint was filed by the National Council for Women accusing the broadcaster of insulting Egyptian women after there was an uproar over comments she made about weight and health in August 2019. Many of us considered the news a victory for women but we must refute some important facts before concluding that the National Council for Women and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation are champions of women and civil liberties.

Why  Reham Said, not Menna Gibran, Amal Fathi and Malak Al Kashef?

It’s not because she is lacking in professionalism and decency, nor because she caused now infamous incidents of privacy violation, justified sexual violence and enabled a harasser to take revenge against his victim (the story of the Mall girl). The reason is more likely to be because of the anger caused by her insulting words about “fat persons”. It was the ideal moment for an intervention by the National Council for Women to present itself as a defender of women and to appear as a saviour, but if we extracted ourselves from the core of the incident and the resulting complaints just for a few moments we would perceive that there is a contradiction in what the NCW claims and in what it does.

Let us take as an example, the cyberbullying and violence that a young Egyptian woman faced in addition to an arbitrary dismissal from work because she filmed a harasser on her phone and posted the video on Facebook. This became known as the “Fifth settlement harasser” or the “'On the Run' incident (On the run is a chain of gas station convenience stores) in August 2018. The president of the NWC criticized the young woman for refusing to file an official report as if her support was conditional on the filing of the report and taking legal action (despite that not being her desire) as if that was the only way to support her.

There are clearer examples of NCW pro-regime policies like how they dealt with activist Amal Fathi, who has been detained for more than 200 days and has been accused of insulting Egypt and publishing false news that threaten national security after she published a video on Facebook in which she described an incident of sexual harassment that she had gone through. According to Front Line Defenders and the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. The NWC did not act to support her, did not file complaints against the public prosecutor who filed these charges against her and ignored the incident.

I cannot entrust the National Women's Council and the Supreme Council for Media to advocate for me as a woman and a citizen: they disregard the state's violations against civil rights, while I live in the shadow of laws that make my opposition to power a crime.
I cannot trust that someone that will only support me as long as I do what pleases the authorities. I cannot trust fake justice that uses women’s issues to whitewash the regimes tightening grip on security and on political life

Then there is the story of Malak El Kashef, the Egyptian transgender activist who was arrested after demonstrating against the corruption of the Egyptian Railway Authority that caused the train explosion in Ramses Station. She was placed in solitary confinement in the men's wing of the Tora Prison complex despite her gender. The NWC did not act, did not condemn her incarceration in the men's prison and did not intervene at all in her case which resembled Amal Fathi’s in that the two activists publicly criticized state policies and executive bodies.

Hence the murkiness of the intentions of the NWC as an entity that is supposed to be independent of power, but which supports it. The president of the National Council for Women thanked President El Sisi, describing him as the first defender of women, overlooking his past violations, which he has not yet apologized for, such as supervising the subjection of Egyptian female demonstrators to forced virginity tests, in March 2011, which was condemned by Amnesty International.

Egyptian Media Under Control

As for the body that filed a complaint against Reham Said, it is also loyal to the Egyptian government despite supposedly being independent, It is known as the Supreme Council of media regulation, a legal body that regulates audio-visual media, which was established in April 2017.

In her report to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, Egyptian researcher Marian Sidhom explains that the Supreme Council of Media regulation is in the grip of the executive branch, as its head is appointed by the President of the Republic, and his sessions coincide with the sessions of the presidential and parliamentary elections, and has been granted broad powers as the institution responsible for the media and for granting permits and  pushes for explicit support of President Sisi and defames his opponents.

In August 2018, the Anti-IT Crimes Act 175 of 2018 and the Law on the Organization of the Press and Media 180 of 2018 were approved, giving broad powers to the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, including imposing penalties such as fines, imprisonment, and blocking of websites, which affected more than 500 web sites since May 2017 to date, and any personal social media account that has more than 5000 followers is considered  a media outlet and is thus subject to the provisions of the laws. Through these laws, citizens were arrested, digital advocacy criminalized and websites blocked - a direct assault on the right to information.

What this means is that we are governed by an entity that filters all that it considers “offensive” and what the state defines as “a security risk”. It’s only a coincidence that we agree with the judgement of Riham Saeed as offensive but that does not mean that we co-exist harmoniously with the Supreme Council which is an authoritarian entity that violates our rights as citizens.

Mistrusting the Justice of the Political System

I cannot trust a justice system that is enacted by entities that are supportive of the government and support its abuses. I cannot entrust the National Women's Council and the Supreme Council for Media to advocate for me as a woman, or as a citizen, when they disregard the state's violations against civil rights, while I live in the shadow of laws that make my opposition to power a political and criminal crime.

I cannot trust that someone that will only support me as long as I do what pleases the authorities. I cannot trust fake justice that uses women’s issues to whitewash the regimes tightening grip on security and on political life and it’s criminalizing of civil society and human rights work   I cannot stand with the supporters of the state, its executive arms and the tools of oppression, just because I hate Reham Said's rhetoric.

The state and its supporters should recognize that citizenship and civil rights are interrelated, that the statements of Reham Said are harmful, but just as harmful as political imprisonment, blocking websites and censorship.  

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