Do Islamist Leaders Have Thinner Skins?

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By Marc Champion

What is it about elected Islamist leaders and their sensitivity to insults?

Bloomberg News reports today that President Mohamed Mursi of Egypt has filed more lawsuits against journalists and others for the crime of "insulting the president" in his first 200 days than all other Egyptian leaders since 1892 combined.

OK, that's a somewhat skewed test and might even represent an improvement: Mursi has filed 24 insult suits since June compared with former dictator Hosni Mubarak's four in three decades as president. But that may be because Mubarak was willing to use much more severe ways of punishing and silencing the outspoken.

The Egyptian government also says it needs to protect the president against a hostile news media, which is actively trying to tear him down. Maybe. Mursi and his government have plenty of implacable opponents.

Still, Mursi protests far too much. His need to protect his dignity from insults seems cultural, as well as tactical. Look at the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party in Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also has filed many more suits against people who allegedly insulted him than any of his mostly secular predecessors. Like Mursi, he too believes the news media has been involved in a, seemingly endless, deep-state plot to remove him from power.

There's no doubt that a Turkish deep state, a subterranean enforcement mechanism linked to the security forces existed, but it wasn't relevant to Erdogan's penchant for lawsuits. Over the years, Erdogan sued a stand-up comedian, professors, a street performance group, a brother and sister who made a song for YouTube, a slightly dotty Englishman who made a collage of Erdogan as George Bush's pet dog in the lead-up to the Iraq War, and dozens of others. Many had to pay heavy fines and some lost their jobs as a result. He also eviscerated the free press in Turkey, while claiming to protect it.

That kind of sensitivity among politicians seems antithetical to democracy and the practice of free speech. It's almost a test of the strength of a democracy that its leaders accept they are fair game for the widest range of criticism and lampooning. Lest we forget, U.K. Prime Minister John Major spent virtually his entire term in office being depicted by the Guardian's cartoonist, Steve Bell, wearing Y-front underpants over his trousers.

For powerful leaders to suppress free comment by the powerless, using the threat of prosecution over alleged insults is a part of the Turkish model that Egypt should avoid.

(Marc Champion is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

-0- Jan/22/2013 17:58 GMT