Egypt's President Sisi declares freedom of speech sacrosanct

Meanwhile, protesters, journalists, and political opponents continue to go to jail.

Heba Elkholy/AP
Al Jazeera English journalists (l-r) Baher Fahmy, Mohammed Fahmy, and Peter Greste at their trial last year. The trio were convicted on terrorism charges.

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the retired general who rose to power following an army coup against the Muslim Brotherhood's elected President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, said in an statement today that Egypt is home to no political prisoners and that there are no restrictions on freedom of expression.

Egypt's State Information Service reports that Sisi issued a statement to Sky News Arabia today in which he dismissed concerns about the limited political freedoms in the country.

"The right to demonstrate is guaranteed but we want at the same time to achieve stability and security for the Egyptian people," Sisi said. "Did anyone apply to demonstrate over the past few months and his request was denied?"

Some might disagree, particularly the steady stream of Islamic and leftist activists and politicians who have been jailed in recent months.

Last week, a Canadian effort to convince Sisi to free three journalists from Al Jazeera English - an Australian, a Canadian-Egyptian, and an Egyptian - jailed on spurious terrorism charges, came to naught. In October, following the jailing of 23 Egyptians for 3 years for protesting against a new law that effectively outlaws public demonstrations, Human Rights Watch was scathing.

“It’s back to business as usual in Egypt, with the Egyptian government brazenly trampling on the rights of its citizens and Western governments supporting it,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for the group, said in a statement at the time. “The Sisi government will clearly go to any length to crush domestic opposition, whether secular or Islamist.”

In July and August 2013, government forces killed over 800 Islamists protesting the ouster of Mr. Morsi and since that summer, over 20,000 Egyptians have been arrested or tried on what most would consider political grounds

.In November, this was Amnesty International's take on the state of political freedom in Egypt:

According to Amnesty International’s research, the judiciary’s independence and impartiality has been called into question by a pattern of selective justice. Judicial authorities have ordered the detention or indictment of thousands of members of the political opposition, while ignoring gross human rights violations by the authorities. Amnesty International has also documented flagrant violations of the right to due process, with detainees held without adequate access to a lawyer, or the ability to challenge the lawfulness of their detention, or participate effectively in their defence.  The organization has also documented grossly unfair trials.

...  Amnesty International has documented a number of cases where individuals have been detained solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression, most notably the case of Al Jazeera media workers Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed and the case of Mahmoud Abu Zaid who is detained over a year without charge.

Even the United States, a staunch military and economic backer of President Sisi's government, has been alarmed at some state actions. In April, after 683 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were condemned to death by an Egyptian court and the April 6 Youth Movement, the left-leaning group that was among the leaders of the January 2011 uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak, was outlawed, the State Department said the US was "deeply concerned."

The US called the sentence "unconscionable" and said "it is impossible to believe that such proceedings could satisfy even the most basic standards of justice, let alone meet Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law." On the banning of April 6, the US said: "Supporters of the movement were at the forefront of the January 25, 2011 revolution that overthrew former president Mubarak, and the Government of Egypt must allow for the peaceful political activism that the group practices if Egypt’s interim Government intends to transition to democracy."

Sisi is a man who rose through the ranks during Mubarak's 30 years in power, and has been working hard to restore Mubarak's style of rule.

Last week, a fraud conviction against Mr. Mubarak was overturned, and that followed the dismissal of all charges against stemming from human rights abuses in his final weeks in power. 

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