Why Egypt's YouTube Ban Might Actually Strengthen Its Democracy


YouTube has temporarily been banned in Egypt for thirty days for carrying the anti-Islam film which spurred deadly riots all across North Africa and the Middle East last September. Judge Hassouna Tawfiq ordered the Egyptian government to block access to the site for allowing a film on their site which was "offensive to Islam and to the Prophet [Mohammed]."

Although the move is seen as a backwards step for both internet freedom and democracy as a whole, in the historical context of most Middle Eastern regimes – whether democratic or not – ultimately becoming theocracies, this does not come as much of a surprise. Egypt has always been a country that maintains Islam as its state religion. With the population comprised of a 90% Muslim majority and a 10% Christian minority, the ruling regarding YouTube and a film that was offensive to an enormous portion of the population is not extraordinary.

In fact, the lawyer who filed the case against the Egyptian government for not taking any measures against YouTube, Mohammad Hamid Salim, argued that the film constituted a threat to Egypt’s national security. Egypt’s new constitution, following the constitution of many other Muslim nations, also includes a ban on insulting "religious messengers and prophets" – thus making the film illegal in the country.

But the question is – does banning material that is offensive to practically 90% of a country’s population diminish its stance on democracy, or does it strengthen it? Consider that the case was brought to the Cairo court via a civilian lawyer, following mass protests all around the country against said video.

Last year, men and women of all ages lined the streets of Egypt holding up signs that read "Blasphemy is unacceptable in every religion" and "Freedom of speech ≠ Slander." In other words, they aren’t opposed to censorship when it comes to their religion; in Islam, religious satire or jokes, and more importantly, those featuring the Prophets, are actually not allowed. The majority of Egyptians will likely not see a problem with this, just as many in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, nations that have also blocked YouTube, haven not. In fact, I can recall many Pakistanis that I knew calling for a ban on YouTube themselves when their respective governments first failed to do so.

Moreover, this specific case is most likely not a part of a wider crackdown on the freedom of speech but rather represents a religious commitment. That committment isone that is also is likely to be more symbolic than anything else, given that similar orders in the past have failed to see strong enforcement.  So far, Google has yet to receive anything from the judge or the Egyptian government related to the ruling.

Most of us, especially those who live in America, probably will have a hard time understanding the desire to limit freedom of speech even slightly. However, we have to understand that for many in the Middle East and elsewhere, freedom of speech at the cost of religion just isn’t worth it to them.