Whoever would have imagined that one of the challenges of the post-Egyptian revolution period would be the elevation of pornographic websites into a political issue? Yet Egypt’s Islamists have an uncanny way of not only surprising the public, but shifting the goalposts and reframing the debate – so that you find yourself swept up in matters far-removed from the country’s more pressing problems.
Egypt’s ultra-conservative Salafis have called for a ban on pornographic websites based on a 2009 court order. The timing is suspect given the drafting of the constitution, and the wrangling over the word ‘Sharia’, which comes across as an attempt to make anti-censorship advocates (largely the civil society camp) look like pro-pornography pro-decadents, which is far from the case.
An Egyptian bound by the ball and chain of poverty
This popular image that has been circulated around the social media shows an Egyptian bound by the ball and chain of poverty, lack of education, slums, haphazard electricity, Sinai insecurity, gas and fuel shortages, unemployment, rising food prices, etc and despite all that, he yells “Anything but sex [websites]!” Last winter, the very same anti-Islamist cartoon was circulating with similar problems on the chain and ball except the man was yelling about the red-herring of that moment, “Anything but the bikini!” This political “striptease” neatly sums up one element in the whole process.
This is not to downplay the social anxiety surrounding pornography. It has long been a concern of women groups, education boards, families, Muslim and Coptic groups. A Los Angeles Times report in March indicated the scale of the problem, “According to Google trends, Egypt ranked fifth in the world in searching for the term ‘sex’ in 2011. It was also reported that at least six pornographic websites rank among the top 100 sites in Egypt.”
Even many liberal Egyptians would not be opposed to a ban on pornographic sites if it just came down to that. Yet the concern must be that when Islamists take it up, the wheels of censorship are set in motion. Vaguely-worded legislation targeting porn sites risks enveloping the websites of activists, opposition groups, civil groups, independent news, and others as “violating Egyptian customs and values.”
UAE journalist and analyst, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, recently remarked: “Egypt's online porn ban is a first step to banning other ‘disagreeable’ content. We in the Gulf know how it works, we’ve seen this movie before.” And we have. I once attempted to access an internet telephony website to make an overseas call while in Abu Dhabi. A message popped up saying that this site was blocked for offending the cultural values of the UAE. The only values it offended was the monopoly of the telecommunications giant Etisalat. This extends to political and cultural websites as well.
The Salafis have launched a campaign called “Pure Net”, and according to an Al-Arabiya report, Salafist MP Mamdouh Ismail stated: “These pornographic websites stem from a Western culture…they promote a criminal culture, one which leads to unproductivity, drugs and theft.”
There you have it from an “expert” – so Egypt’s criminal culture, from car-jackings to buildings caving in, idleness at coffeehouses, drug abuse, theft, (just add in any vice you like here) do not stem from rampant corruption, high unemployment, feeble law enforcement, a dysfunctional education system and the absence of political will to redress any of them. Rather, it is a buxom blonde named Candy from a rundown Californian studio that is the biggest threat to Egypt’s fabric – one download at a time.
Emboldened by the Morsi Mojo, Islamists have frequently deployed identity politics to appeal to domestic bases. Mamdouh Ismail established his grandstanding credentials when he rose up to announce the call to prayer earlier this year in parliament. Last April, charges were brought against veteran actor Adel Imam by an Islamist lawyer on charges of insulting Islam in his films. Apart from its absurdity, a stronger case would have demanded that you don’t target the actor, but the director, producer and script writer. But this is not about real social change.
Despite Egypt’s problematic tinderbox, a number of these rookie politicians and lawyers lack the foresight to propose long-term solutions to pressing economic problems. Technology experts have put a hefty $16.5 million price tag on such a ban. What is Ismail’s response? That, “It’s worth the price. No matter how much it costs, the moral value of this will be much more significant.” This is surely a profoundly disturbing case of screwed-up priorities in a country where internet access barely hits the quarter mark and 40 per cent live under the poverty line.
Now the National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (NRTA) has come out stating that it would be impossible to block all the sites and that ISP’s provide family filters for anyone interested (Egyptian blogger Zeinobia has provided a summary). The NRTA visited the Gulf states to check out their experiences on this matter and, not surprisingly, found they too failed to block porn websites despite the millions spent. Amusingly, the NTRA advised Egyptians to raise their sons properly instead of demanding that websites be blocked.
Even before Islamists made their mark, the state oversaw how people thought, felt and behaved. This guiding philosophy of the Mubarak regime has been inherited by the Islamists – it is an insult to millions of Egyptians that detest the state for treating them as children.
The Islamists should take a lesson from Mubarak’s final days. Shutting down the internet did not prevent the ex-autocrat from being toppled. The cries of the revolution were “bread, freedom and dignity”: if nothing has been done to deliver these by the time Egyptians next walk up to the ballot box, then a “We banned porn websites” will not provide an adequate, winning campaign slogan.