Reports from Egypt have revealed that Egyptian interim President Adly Mansour has changed the punishment policy for insulting a sitting president from imprisonment to a hefty fine. In the uncertainty that plagues a post-Morsi Egypt, the mitigation of severe punishment for political free speech might seem to be a progressive and hopeful move for Egypt. While this matters, the newest change is simply lip service in the next political power grab. The new policy is an illusion of change, and that should worry people.
The change comes in the midst of major clashing protests that have spread across Egypt in both favor for and opposition to the military ousting of democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi. Morsi's turbulent one-year rule was undermined by both favoritism towards the Muslim Brotherhood and what was perceived to a dire record on civil liberties to many Egyptians.
The imprisonment policy under Morsi was particularly problematic abroad to Western liberal democracies that uphold free speech laws. The poster child, and most notable Egyptian, to be imprisoned for violating draconian Egyptian free speech laws was comedian Bassem Youseff. Youseff's role in political comedy is akin to the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert routines in the United States. Youseff's arrest for making fun of Morsi was heavily criticized by Washington.
Laws prohibiting insulting the Egyptian president existed before Morsi took office, but Morsi's administration was the most prominent at enforcing it. There had been 24 arrests in the prior 115 years before Morsi took office, but 28 arrests just within Morsi's one-year rule.
The lessening of the punishment is important in the sense that a long undemocratic precedent has been changed, but it has not been changed enough to be seen as entirely progressive. The director of Human Rights Watch in Egypt, Heba Morayef, stated to Reuters that "This amendment, while a general step in the right direction, doesn't go anywhere far enough, because it doesn't address the multiple provisions in the penal code that limit freedom of expression."
Morayef is absolutely right considering the punishment, and existence of any such punishment at all. The new fine can be valued up to 30,000 Egyptian pounds. This is approximately $4,300 in U.S. currency. The minimum fine is 10,000 Egyptian pounds. Regardless of what degrees of monetary fines are enforced, they're still very expensive to the average Egyptian given current conditions. The announcement of the change did not specify what would happen to citizens that could not pay the fine.
The main problem is that there shouldn't be a punishment at all. Initially, it would seem that this would increase the ability of citizens to protest, but the interim government has already talked about stopping current protests, peacefully or by force. So, what is the point? Since the democratic conditions are so bad, any change looks favorable. The interim government is making a power grab through small ineffective changes that look good, but don’t change the status quo enough. It may be a lasting policy, but it’s a lasting policy of lip service.