CAIRO â?? Graffiti and artwork from last year denouncing former dictator Hosni Mubarak can be seen on walls and buildings, reminders of the freedom with which Egyptians expressed themselves during their revolt.
Yet nearly 20 months after the uprising that ousted Mubarak, who stifled free speech for decades, Egypt is deciding whether to embrace or restrict liberties cherished in the West.
The impending completion of a draft constitution will decide the question of whether Egypt creates a society that looks to the Western model of tolerance of dissenting views or the authoritarian example of criminalizing opinions that are repugnant to the majority of citizens.
One path for the future was brought into focus last month when hundreds of Egyptians denounced America for allowing a filmmaker to make a video critical of Islam. Several thousand Salafis who support a stringent Islamic state in Egypt stormed the U.S. Embassy compound with others and tore down the American flag.
"Those who insulted Prophet Mohammed [with] the film are hiding behind the Western laws of freedom of expression that we totally reject," said Abdel Shafi, head of the Islamic Lawyers Association. "What they did and the laws they take refuge behind are totally despicable."
Shafi said a constitution being drafted by lawmakers should clearly indicate that freedom of expression and opinion should be applied to everything but religion.
"Disdaining religion is a clearly defined crime within the Egyptian legal system," he said. "What we need now is to practically and strictly uphold those laws."
Dina Zakaria, a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) that dominated parliamentary elections before the body was dissolved, said the Brotherhood believes in freedom of religion and speech. "If you don't allow for it you are encouraging extremism in society," she said.
There's one exception, she said.
"Humiliation of any religion, of any prophet, we are against that," Zakaria said. "This has nothing to do with freedom of speech. It means that you just give a chance for those who want to create chaos to do that."
Even members of self-described liberal parties agree.
"Maybe in European society they are much more open-minded and they would accept this kind of movie, or this kind of expression, but here it's very different and we are against all this," said George Ishak, founder of the liberal movement Kefaya.
Media freedoms, the right to hold sit-ins and the status of minorities and women are all being debated as the constituent assembly drafts a constitution that will be approved or rejected in a nationwide vote.
One indication of where the document is headed is found in the makeup of the 100-member drafting committee: It's dominated by Islamists and includes only six women. Cairo's administrative court is reviewing the legitimacy of the committee because it was formed by a now-dissolved parliament.
At the United Nations last week, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said freedom of expression must be linked with responsibility, "especially when it comes with serious implications for international peace and stability."
Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation said freedom of speech, expression and religion will be important for Egypt to modernize, but ideals based on Islamic beliefs that are reflected in widespread public opinion are going to counter the range of freedoms found in the West.
"That's a less-than-ideal outcome," Hanna said.
Many historians and political theorists say the West has progressed beyond other nations because of freedoms that give citizens the liberty to reach their highest potential and correct wayward government polices that may hinder ingenuity. The price, they say, is tolerating ideas that are repulsive or heretical.
"For the true potential of the Arab world to be unleashed, freedom of speech is critical for real debate, and ultimately, for real innovation to thrive," said Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "Without it, people are stultified."
Some in Egypt worry that a new society will differ from the past only by oppressing different things.
Mohamed Abou El-Ghar, president of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said it is unnecessary to stipulate in the constitution that religion should not be criticized. This is understood, he said, and doing so would open the door for censorship.
"It looks like there will be more restrictions, and we will go back to the period of Mubarak -- and maybe even worse," Abou El-Ghar said.
"This will harm Egypt because there will be an internal continuous battle between Egyptians fighting for (and against) this," he said. "Improving the condition of the people, the economy, education, the situation â?? it will be forgotten, and this will be a catastrophe."
Shafi said limiting the freedom to insult religion wouldn't hinder Egypt's ability to progress. "What we are calling for is respecting our cultural and religious principles, which are shared by both Muslims and Copts in Egypt," Shafi said, referring to Christians.
The West's freedoms rest on the principle that one confronts argument with argument, not by shutting debate down, Danin said. However, even the West has not agreed fully on these issues. For example, Holocaust denial is illegal in some European countries.
"When we call for such limitations on freedoms in Egypt, we are not trying to create something never heard of before," said Mohamed Nour, spokesman for the Salafist Al-Nour Party.
Danin said all states are constantly in the process of dealing with new challenges and that's part of what active citizen participation is about. "So I think one of the things the Arab world is struggling with now is how you deal with newfound freedoms."
Contributing: Mohannad Sabry from Cairo
Copyright 2013 USATODAY.com
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