The issue of free flow of information must not be seen as an intellectual luxury in a time of growing challenges facing Egypt. Rather, the issue should be tackled as a component of a package of new orientations for building a modern state.
Moreover, the implementation of a free flow of information shouldn’t be considered as only a means to achieving democratic transition, but rather it should be seen also as a tool that, when applied seriously, should break down the barrier of mistrust between the citizen and the state institutions.
International experiences suggest that creating a new environment for the flow of information would create a win-win situation. The current Egyptian context shows that the gains the Egyptian government would achieve if it concretely enabled the flow of information would be huge.
My argument is that in applying such law, the cabinet, which would implement this transformation, would have its name immortalized in history as the force that managed to defeat the biggest challenge facing Egyptian bureaucracy and remove the biggest obstacle to the success of anti-corruption policies.
This government would also be the one that overcame the biggest obstacle to building a system of monitoring and evaluation as the basis for accountability, which wasn’t known to Egyptians for more than half a century.
Furthermore, the issuance and applicability of a modern law for a free flow of information would contribute to breaking the isolation of the state and government. Such law would build bridges of trust between the government and the citizen. It would also bridge the gap between the government and blocs that suffer from acrimonious relations with the state, such as intellectuals, media, and civil society organizations.
By issuing such a law, the ruling regime would gain credibility, which it badly needs. This law would also have a positive impact on the investment climate, which currently craves any positive signals.
Since corruption would find its way to again penetrate the system, such a law would also create a climate of transparency that would protect the system from any aspects of corruption.
Some argue that creating a new climate characterized by a free flow of information is impossible in a society in which some fixed ‘golden rules’ govern the government bureaucracy. These roles are:
- Monopoly of information is a source of power;
- Information shouldn’t be available except only when needed;
- Increasing the amount of information available to citizens could be used against the government.
Such norms should be changed to:
- Exchange of information is a source of power to everyone;
- Access to information is a right for the citizen, and it’s a state’s duty to provide it;
- Increasing the amount of information available to citizens would increase their trust in the government and could be an indicator for its success.
This shift in the culture of the Egyptian bureaucracy is a very difficult matter because it collides with constant and consistent interests, and also contradicts values deeply rooted in the Egyptian character.
For example, recalling selective proverbs and sayings such as, “Sedition is dormant, so may God damn whoever dares awaken it,” would force some people to refrain from providing information that they think would cause controversy, even if that information is useful.
Also, the saying, “Ask about what doesn’t concern you, and you are made to listen to something that isn’t pleasing to you,” may cause some people to resent any request of information that reflects interest in public affairs.
Sometimes, people recall the Quranic verse, “O you who have believed, do not ask about things that, if they are shown to you, will distress you,” (Surat Al-Ma’idah 5:101), and use it in a different context to dismiss anyone who demands information that reflects mismanagement of government projects.
Is there a glimmer of hope to bring about this transformation?
The answer is yes. I have in mind two steps that are reasons for optimism. The first is that the Ministry of Justice has prepared a draft law on the free flow of information and invited experts, journalists, and civil society organizations to discuss it.
While I have not read the content of these discussions and didn’t participate in the meetings, I have read the proposed draft on the ministry’s website.
Here are a couple of remarks I propose to those responsible for formulation of the draft:
- The draft law tackles two issues: the disclosure of information by government institutions and the handling of official documents. Without going into too much detail, I think that the integrated approach of the subject deserves praise. The draft law in general is basically a leap forward, and I hope it will not suffer negative amendments that would bring the draft law back.
- My main reservation is that the draft law didn’t link between the issue of disclosure of information for government institutions and the issue of information production itself, by which I mean the collection of data through field surveys, which are among many constraints that hinder the conduct of research in social science. We desperately need to collect more information that can enable researchers in the field of social sciences to understand the Egyptian character and many of the phenomena, which may undergo changes without being monitored or explained.
Finally, the shift towards a climate in which information flows smoothly requires good legislation, which appears to be possible in light of the recent work that has been done in the Ministry of Justice.
But legislative intervention should be seen as a necessary, not sufficient, condition.
The crux of the matter is that, in order for the law to turn into a practical reality, it should be accompanied by a package of policies and programs that include institutional changes within the Egyptian government at both the central and local levels.
It requires technical capacity building for workers responsible for providing information. It also requires the appropriate use of technology and raised awareness among citizens about the right to access information.
It also requires the improvement of the quality of data collection, the speed of issuing such information, and the maintenance of accurate data collection
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and I hope that the government would hasten its progress in this respect, in which it would become the biggest beneficiary if it were to take the first step.