In early September, the Egyptian Cabinet issued a decision obligating all ministries not to disclose any data about the numbers of tourists coming to Egypt or the occupancy rate in hotels and tourist facilities.
The government did not explain the reasons for the decision, but workers in the tourism sector attributed it to the small number of incoming tourists, despite the improvement of the situation compared to last year, after the repercussions of the corona crisis began to recede, and after Russia and Britain lifted the travel ban to Egypt.
This decision would cause confusion in the tourism sector and its related activities, as well as the fact that it cannot be applied tightly, as international tourism organisations and companies and other countries announce the numbers of tourists in each country, which makes the government decision useless. Preventing the disclosure of the numbers of tourists coming to Egypt is not unusual for the government, as the former Minister of Tourism, Rania Al-Mashat, previously refused, during a press conference in 2018, to reveal the numbers of tourists, noting at the time that her ministry had received instructions not to announce the real numbers as a matter of national security.
Such decisions reflect the Egyptian regime’s crisis in dealing with information, even if it is very ordinary. The origin of government information and statistics is that they are confidential and are related to “national security” and their disclosure is done with great discretion, due to the regime’s fear of revealing facts to citizens and the absence of a law over freedom of information.
The Egyptian Public Prosecutor frequently issues decisions banning publication in cases of public concern, claiming that they “did not affect the progress of investigations.” However, the reality is that many of these cases are prohibited from being published in order to conceal them and not to embarrass the regime.
For example, the Public Prosecutor issued several decisions banning publication in corruption cases. In 2015, publication was banned in the case of bribery of the Ministry of Agriculture, which the Minister of Agriculture Salah Helal was accused of, and the case ended with a sentence of the accused and his office manager with 10 years in prison and a fine of EGP one million. In 2016, the Public Prosecutor was banned from publishing investigations into the case of the “CAA report on the extent of corruption,” which estimated that the volume of corruption in Egypt amounted to EGP 600 billion. In 2017, the Attorney General banned publication in the State Council bribery case, in which the Secretary-General of the State Council at the time, Counselor Wael Shalaby, and Director of the Procurement Department at the State Council Jamal Al-Labban, were accused, and the case ended with the sentence of Al-Labban to 25 years imprisonment, while the charges were dropped against Shalabi after he committed suicide in his prison.
The Public Prosecutor also issued several decisions banning publication in cases of murder and torture in which police officers are accused. In 2015, publication was banned in the case of the murder of political activist Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh by a police officer during her participation in a peaceful protest, and in the same year publication was banned in the case of the murder of lawyer Karim Hamdi, who was tortured by police officers in the Matariya police station. The decisions to ban publication in important cases are not limited to the Public Prosecutor only, but the matter extends to the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, which prohibits publishing in cases it considers matters of national security. In June 2020, the Supreme Media banned publishing or broadcasting any news related to the situation in Libya, the Renaissance Dam crisis, or the military operations in Sinai, except for the statements issued by the official and competent authorities only.
The matter extends to the House of Representatives, which is supposed to represent the people. In January 2016, the House issued a decision to stop broadcasting their sessions, and to resort to publishing selected video clips only, under the pretext of “preserving the prestige of the House,” in clear violation of Article 120 of the Egyptian Constitution which confirms that “the sessions of the House of Representatives are public.” This decision is still in effect until now, despite the election of a new council.
The lost freedom of information
Article 68 of the Egyptian Constitution states: “Information, data, statistics and official documents belong to the people, and their disclosure from various sources is a right guaranteed by the state to every citizen. Whoever refuses to give it, also determines the penalty for withholding information or giving false information intentionally. State institutions are obliged to deposit official documents after the completion of their working period in the National Documents House, to protect and secure them from loss or damage, and to restore and digitise them, by all modern means and tools, in accordance with the law. Despite this, the state has stalled since the adoption of the constitution in 2014 in issuing the Freedom of Information Law. From time to time there are leaks about the state’s intention to prepare a law, or the parliament’s willingness to pass a law for the freedom of information circulation, and then talk about the law disappears amid official ambiguity.
The fact that the law has not yet been issued reflects the regime’s desire to monopolise information for itself, and its fear that the people will use it to demand their rights to know the facts, or that the opposition will exploit it to build a political programme based on accurate facts and information, instead of relying on expectations and government figures that are issued as if they are a blessing for the people and not an inherent right.