On Saturday morning someone on Twitter tweeted that the Salafis were having a seminar on website censorship at the Cairo Conference Centre and so with nothing better to do I went along.
It turned out to be a panel discussion held as part of the Cairo Telecom and IT Trade Fair, a room full of suits and computer screens and, as is inevitable, a booth advertising a new Emaar holiday home horror, this time “Porto South Beach” near Hurghada.
The seminar featured four panelists from the usual backgrounds plus a member of the Salafi Nour Party called Mohamed Emara. The seminar asked the silly question whether we need to censor porn on the Internet. (An MP recently demanded such a law be passed).
Even before the seminar started in earnest the moderator, a vigorous man called Hossam Saleh (who did a very good job) made clear to Emara that he had been invited “so we can listen to him and not attack him” but it soon became clear that Emara, who is a professor at Al-Azhar University, was out of his depth.
Emara is a timid sort of man whose face is almost permanetly emblazoned with that benevolent smile beloved of the spiritually enlightened. During his gentle roastings at the hands of the imposing Saleh (who towered above the panelists parked in their chairs) Emara stared up at him mournfully, the perma smile doing little to conceal his discomfort. While listening to the other panelists discuss the prohibitive technical aspects of net censorship he busily scribbled down the information as if hearing it for the first time.
Emara himself came out with some extraordinary statements, shyly delivered. He started with the usual, “we [Salafis/the Nour Party] are with progress as long as it doesn’t contradict our moral values”, and then expressed the desire that seminar organisers had invited a psychiatrist to proceedings, because, “a study in the 1990s revealed that most people in prison ended up there because of the websites and photos they viewed online” by which I assume he meant the theory that viewing bedroom combat immediately leads one to go out and attack members of the public with one’s penis.
The rest of the panel consisted of mostly bilingual liberal types lobbying against net censorship, because it is technically infeasible, expensive (a government representative said it would cost something like LE 70 million to block porn) and ultimately Egypt’s highly sexed testosterone-fuelled youth will find a work around. In an apparent attempt to prove that Emara is not akthar menhom Islaman*, all the panelists made forthright noises about there being a consensus that we all condemn porn, and I wanted to stand up and say ahem not quite.
I suspect that the predominantly young male audience and their sticky keyboards would have agreed. All except one audience member, a killjoy student in favour of porn censorship because viewing online filth makes young people enter a “7alat haygaan” (a “state of randyness”), my favourite phrase of the day. Saleh responded by mockingly suggesting that people scared of dying on the roads shouldn’t drive cars.
Saleh bamboozled the unsuspecting Emara with another analogy. He asked him whether he is in favour of banning CNN. Looking flustered, Emara said no because, “this is just an American version of a news channel”. Saleh then pounced, hitting him with the bombshell that there exists technology that calculates the percentage of skin shown in an image and uses this calculation to censor websites accordingly. This, Saleh revealed would mean that CNN’s sports section would be censored during the upcoming Olympics when it posted images of e.g. females divers. Emara looked uncomfortable, but then the discussion moved on before he could respond.
He did suggest however that Egyptians would find a solution to the cost and technical impossibility of net censorship, pointing to the example of the Endowments Minister who six years ago proposed a unified azan (call to prayer) and everyone guffawed but it was done (except that actually it hasn’t been implemented).
“Egyptian minds are superior to all others…If we want to do something we will,” Emara declared, providing no evidence for this. Bafflingly, he then gave the example of the failed attempt to ban alcohol during Prohibition in apparent support of his own argument that banning works.
Emara spent the whole seminar attempting to make the impossible case that Internet freedom is compatible with the paternalism advocated by his party. He talked about “protection of our Eastern identity” and “a suitable environment for our youth, children and for ourselves”. He pointed to China as an example of a country where “young people have work opportunities and the sort of websites and content we’re talking about just isn’t an issue” by which he seemed to mean that people are too exhausted from slaving away without breaks making Apple products to have a wank. At one point he declared that he had brought his iPad with him, and that he has other “computer equipment at home”, as evidence of his tech savvyness.
I didn’t understand why Emara had been selected to represent Nour at this conference, although he seems like a well-meaning man. They surely have stronger candidates for net-related issues and the discussion would have been better.
Emara wasn’t without supporters in the audience, nonetheless.
One man who described himself as head of IT in something or other made reference to “sexual contents” while explaining something about “backend users”.
“I’m sorry I used the word sexual,” the IT head said and was interrupted by Saleh who pointed out that sexual is not a rude word.
“My father taught me that sex is not a rude word but the word sexual is,” the IT head countered as everyone in the room by this point just wished that people procreated via postal orders.
One man told the seminar that he worked as a teacher in Saudi Arabia where he was prevented from accessing the devil’s work online via net censorship. “el wa7ed etmana3 men el shar” (“one was kept away from evil”) he said. The same could not alas be said of his Internet experience in Egypt, he explained, where he would be sitting innocently perusing all things kosher when “suddenly” a “window would open in front of me and I’d find myself on a porn website”.
“Mesh 3alayna yabba,” [Yeah, right] a friend sniggered.
*Not a better Muslim than them. This is a reference to People’s Assembly guvnor Saad El-Katatny that I can’t be bothered to explain. Ask your local Egyptian.