A Rude Awakening: Free Speech and the Arab Spring

Allia Calkins

“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, sheep to the slaughter” – George Washington

In December of 2010, the world watched as Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in response to the confiscation of his fruit cart by local police. This seemingly innocuous act set off a chain reaction that led to the fall of dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and many other states in the Arab world. The consequences of the Arab Spring remain to be seen, as many states are still experiencing transitions to democracy while others remain under totalitarian rule. However, one important factor continues to link the Arab countries involved, and that is the importance of free speech. Citizens of the Arab world used public protest and social media to express their desire for a change towards democracy, and continue to voice their opinions as new governments are set up. For many, the Arab Spring has presented the first opportunity in many decades to have their voices be heard, however, as new governments continue to establish, and new constitutions are written, many countries are facing a backlash regarding the freedom of speech. Governments fear the power that toppled the original regimes in the first place; therefore countries such as Tunisia and Egypt have seen a cracking down on the freedom of expression that has emerged since the fall of their dictators. Other countries, such as Syria, refuse to back down. While citizens in Syria may try to express themselves peacefully through protests, the government does not recognize a right to freedom of speech, and has responded violently.

While the self-mutilation of Mohamed Bouazizi may not have been the sole reason for the toppling of the government in Tunisia, it certainly was the catalyst that sparked the resulting protests. Tunisia under its former leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had strict limitations on the press and did not tolerate dissent. By December of 2010, the citizens were fed up with Ben Ali’s totalitarian rule and took to the streets to protest. In January, Ben Ali stepped down and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi took over as interim president until elections could be held. The inaugural session of the democratically elected assembly took place nearly one year after the start of the Arab Spring, and since then Tunisia has made moves towards further democratization and the implementation of a new constitution. A major point of debate regarding the new Tunisian constitution is its article stating, “Freedom of thought, expression, press, and publication are guaranteed while taking into consideration the sanctities of peoples and religions.” While this seems like a guarantee of the freedom of speech for Tunisian’s citizens, in reality it constitutes a huge loophole in which this freedom may be denied on the basis of Religion or the insulting of political leaders. Tunisia has also faced backlash regarding the freedom of the press. The government has been resorting to penalization of dissenters rather than democratically taking input from their opinions, a move that is eerily similar to practices in place under the Ben Ali regime.

The country of Egypt has taken a route similar to Tunisia’s with a few more bumps along the road. After protestors ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians democratically elected Mohammed Morsi. Under Morsi, Egypt seemed to be taking steps towards the expansion of free speech, however it was not actually the case. Morsi made heavy use of a law punishing those who insulted him, such as satirist Bassem Youssef, a comedian who was arrested for mocking the president on his show. Free speech continued to play a role in Egypt as citizens again took to the streets to protest Morsi, and the military stepped in to remove him from power. It remains to be seen how Egypt will proceed from here, however there are some clues that can be seen by looking at the draft of its new constitution. The new constitution outwardly seems to guarantee more rights and freedoms than the old one, however danger lurks around clauses that forbid insulting prophets and messenger of Islam, and the article guaranteeing freedom of thought and opinion contradicts with some of the other articles pertaining to freedom of religion.

Contrasting to protests in Egypt and Tunisia, the citizens who exercised free speech in Syria did not succeed in removing their dictator from power, and since the regime in Syria has many limits on free speech, the government has responded violently to protests. The current leader, Bassar al-Assad, has used methods such as shutting down the Internet and controlling the media to limit the expression of Syria’s citizens. He has also responded violently to protestors, inciting a civil war. In fact, during the Arab Spring, limits on free speech have become even tighter as Assad fears being ousted like his peers in neighboring countries. As the international community begins stepping in in Syria, the situation will continue to develop, and citizens will continue to see a change in their rights and liberties.

As the western world continues to watch the events unfolding in the Middle East, many organizations and governments have opinions over how countries undergoing change should proceed. The international community now has laws demanding certain human rights be given to all citizens, and it has high standards regarding freedom of expression and civil liberties. However, it is important to keep in mind that it has taken hundreds of years for these laws to be established and enforced in the West. The world has high expectations for the Arab world regarding its citizens’ rights, and moving forward it will be very evident that the reality of the situation regarding free speech is very different from what the West hopes will happen.

[Image Credit: http://www.csmonitor.com/var/archive/storage/images/media/images/0512-astepback-yemen-protesters/10143025-1-eng-US/0512-ASTEPBACK-yemen-protesters_full_600.jpg]