Egypt's insult laws: Elusive and longstanding

Sarah Carr
Egypt's insult laws: Elusive and longstanding (Photo: Al-Masry Al-Youm)

With human rights organizations reporting a spike in defamation charges, concerns are piling up over the effect of such charges on freedoms of belief and expression. And while the social and political environment may be conducive to more defamation cases, the laws governing them, as well as judicial reasoning, tell of legal exacerbations of the problem. 

Defamation laws “spring from the concept of the divine right of kings — that the king can do no wrong,” James H. Ottaway, Jr. and Leonard H. Marks say in their introduction to a World Press Freedom Committee global survey of these laws.

“Before the age of revolutions and modern republics, the offense was based on the concept of lese majeste, which meant an offense to the dignity of the sovereign. Since kings were held to be sovereign by divine right, it was related to blasphemy, another legal anachronism.”

Crimes of defaming the president and religion remain on Egypt’s statute book — the latter has existed since 1882, while the crime of defaming the president has gone through several permutations as the nature of the state itself changed, including “disgracing the ruler” and “disgracing the royal personage.”

In his book “Insulting the President,” rights lawyer Hamdy al-Assiouty notes that Egyptians have a long history of making fun of their rulers (dating back to pharaonic times), and that incidents of prosecuting defamation cases increase when the state and its institutions are weak.


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