Egyptian blogger Sherif Gaber has been sentenced to three years in prison for expressing his opinions on religion and other “controversial” issues in online videos. Gaber was officially sentenced in case No. 3907/2018 for, in his own words, “mocking religion and spreading immoral values” as well as “disturbing Egyptian public peace through YouTube.” He was first arrested on October 27, 2013 on charges of “contempt for religions and spreading vice values and anomalies that prevent public peace and threaten national security.”
In 2015, Gaber was arrested again, but did not serve any of the one-year sentence he was given. Undeterred by threats from the Egyptian authorities, Gaber continued to publish videos and speak in public, sharing his opinions on topics such as religion, politics and the rights of sexual minorities. Gaber was arrested for a third time on May 5, 2018, but continued to publish his views online, despite formal warnings from state authorities, the most recent of which came on March 31 this year.
Gaber was sentenced under new laws passed under Egypt’s current President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.
Gaber was sentenced on or about September 16 under new laws passed under Egypt’s current President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. On August 18, 2018, Sisi approved a new “cybercrime law” regulating the Internet, called “the law to fight against information technology crimes.” The law was passed by the Egyptian parliament on July 5, 2019.
The legislation significantly extended the powers of the Egyptian government to restrict freedom of expression and invade the privacy of citizens. Several human rights organizations have expressed concerns that Egypt’s new laws in this area are motivated largely by a desire to increase the power of the state over the individual.
International Human Rights Organizations Condemn Gaber’s Conviction
Human Rights organizations, such as Sky Line International (SLI) have strongly condemned Gaber’s prosecution and conviction, stating that his sentence is just one example of the widespread abuse of human rights in Egypt in recent years, particularly relating to the suppression of the right to freedom of expression.
SLI highlighted the fact that freedom of expression is protected under Egyptian law, as well as by international human rights law. The organization stated on its website:
Sherif Jaber (*Pronounced Gaber in Egyptian Arabic) only expresses his opinion, which is a right guaranteed by the Egyptian Constitution in Article 65 and guaranteed by the international covenants and laws signed by Egypt. In addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Arab Charter on Human Rights in Article (24) thereof.
Skyline International stresses that differences of opinion in a conservative society do not justify repression, arrest and intimidation. Skyline points out that the authorities should provide protection for Sharif Jaber instead of pursuing him.
Skyline International also condemns the confiscation of Jaber’s passport, stressing that the right to travel is guaranteed under international law.
Gaber: What’s the Harm in Free Speech?
Gaber is indignant about his predicament. “I am an ordinary young man,” he says. “All I do is discuss critical topics and criticize things that I personally see as bad. What harm is there?”
Gaber recently appeared in a video on his now shut-down YouTube channel in which he asked viewers for travel assistance—his passport was confiscated by airport authorities during his most recent attempt to leave Egypt in October 2018.
Gaber fears that the only way he can escape further persecution is to abandon his Egyptian citizenship and seek to obtain another passport, which he would then use to travel.
“I really tried to solve the problem in many ways before resorting to social media,” Gaber said. “I wanted to deliver my message which was that I’m fighting for my freedom in order to obtain a safe life. I also wanted to show people how petty the system of the state is, which shows off as a civilized state regime.”
Additional Charges Pending
On top of his conviction, Gaber still faces a minimum of five charges. If convicted of all of them, he could be jailed for up to 15 years. These include: “insulting Islam, contempt for religion, supporting homosexuality, destabilizing community peace, and religious extremism.”
“Contempt for religion” is not new under the recently passed “cyber crime law,” but is an undefined “crime” included in Article 98(f) of Egypt’s Penal Code (as amended in 2006) (emphasis added):
“Whoever exploits religion in order to promote extremist ideologies by word of mouth, in writing or in any other manner, with a view to stirring up sedition, disparaging or holding in contempt any divine religion or its adherents, or endangering national unity, shall be punished with imprisonment for between six months and five years or a fine of at least [500 Egyptian pounds].”
Gaber’s conviction under the new “cyber-crime law” comes in the context of Egypt’s lurch in a reactionary direction. Crackdowns on dissenting voices and progressive values are becoming more common and more high-profile.
Gaber’s conviction under the new “cyber-crime law” comes in the context of Egypt’s lurch in a reactionary direction. Crackdowns on dissenting voices and progressive values are becoming more common and more high-profile. 2018 saw television host Mohamed al-Ghiety jailed for interviewing a gay man. Meanwhile, actress Rania Youssef faced legal charges for wearing a see-through dress and was forced to apologize on television.
Like many countries in the region, Egypt is caught in a tussle between progressive and reactionary forces. The outcome of that struggle will be crucial for the region and for the world.