Egyptian parliament seeks to ban criticism of historical icons

Consideration of the bill comes as Egypt’s historians and intellectuals seem to be rethinking both the history of Egypt and Islam.
Sunday 09/09/2018
The statue of Ibrahim Pasha, who ruled Egypt and Sudan in 1848, at the Opera Square in downtown Cairo.  (Saeed Shahat)
Above criticism. The statue of Ibrahim Pasha, who ruled Egypt and Sudan in 1848, at the Opera Square in downtown Cairo. (Saeed Shahat)

CAIRO - The Egyptian parliament is considering legislation that would effectively immunise the reputation of historical figures by threatening to fine and imprison those who speak negatively about them, something critics say is another attempt to prevent open debate.

MP Omar Hamroush, who proposed the Criminalising the Humiliation of Historical Figures bill, said he wants to confront a campaign distracting younger Egyptians with false information about people who played great roles in Egyptian and Arab history.

“There is a new attempt to smear historical figures by those who claim to be researchers in history every day,” Hamroush said. “Sorry to say, these attempts make young Egyptians doubt the authenticity of what they read in the history books about the same figures.”

If enacted, Hamroush’s five-article bill would punish people who have been proven to have humiliated historical figures with up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($27,000).

Historians, writers and thinkers view the measure as an attempt to mute criticism of historical figures to impose an official version of history. Critics of the bill say it seeks to fossilise history and prevent debate of official historical narratives.

“History is not static but is in a continual change in the light of the facts, proofs and documents that emerge day after day,” said writer Farida al-Naqqash, who is a member of the leftist Tagammu Party. “The people proposing this law only want to freeze history and prevent everybody from thinking or viewing things differently.”

Consideration of the bill comes as Egypt’s historians and intellectuals seem to be rethinking both the history of Egypt and Islam.

Youssef Ziedan, an Egyptian scholar who specialises in Arabic and Islamic studies and is director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Manuscript Centre, recently shattered myths about renowned figures in Islamic history. Among them were Saladin, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria and founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, and Amr bin al-As, one of the companions of the Prophet Mohammad and commander of the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640.

Ziedan described Saladin as a “mean” person who burned thousands of books to confront Shia thoughts. He accused Saladin of a crime against humanity by preventing members of the Fatimid dynasty, which had ruled Egypt for 250 years, from marrying one another and having children.

Other intellectuals have cast doubt on official narratives in history books about national and historical figures, such as Ahmed Orabi, Egyptian nationalist and revolutionary behind the Orabi Revolt of 1879-82, and Saad Zaghloul, Egyptian nationalist and former prime minister.

This is the sort of criticism Hamroush, who said he is trying to protect Egyptian history, and his colleagues in parliament want to halt. “This is not about killing free speech and thinking but about stopping those who want Egyptians to lose affinity with and pride in their history,” he said.

The bill is being considered by the Culture Committee and the Security and National Defence Committee. It would next be referred for a final vote by parliament, where, lawmaker Ghada Agamy said, there is “massive” support for it.

“There is a big difference between freedom of speech and the premeditated desire of some people to destroy Egyptian history,” Agamy said. “Most legislators agree on this.”

If approved, the bill will join laws that critics claim limit Egyptians’ free expression. The laws include a ban on the criticism of religions and another barring unauthorised street protests.

Ziedan said if the measure becomes law he would move to another country that tolerates free speech. “If that flawed disgraceful law is approved, I will leave the country and never come back. I will seek another nationality,” he said in a Facebook post.

Hamroush’s bill does not specify what it means by the term “historical figure” and there are fears it could be used to shut down criticism of current public figures. It also does not differentiate between criticism based on newly uncovered facts and research and unsubstantiated slurs.

Naqqash said the bill shows a strong desire in official circles in Egypt to politicise history and prevent competing accounts of events or historical figures.

“This is clear in the desire of those drafting the bill to force the public to submit to the official version of history, other than anything else,” Naqqash said, “but in doing this, these people increase the public’s lack of confidence in the history and the historical figures they want to protect.”