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In the Era of “Fake News,” Egypt Monitors and Silences

New steps taken by Egyptian authorities ahead of the presidential election indicate that the state is embarking on a path of heightened surveillance and criminalization of independent thought.

In an era in which the term “fake news” has been popularized by U.S. President Donald Trump, Egypt seems to be taking cue and intensifying its own crackdown via measures, regulations, and legislation that focus on tightening the state’s control over narratives as well as marginalizing and ultimately eliminating alternative voices. Although Egyptian law has long criminalized “spreading false news,” new steps taken by authorities in recent weeks ahead of the presidential election period indicate that the state is embarking on a path that entails heightened monitoring and surveillance over the population and the criminalization of independent thought on social media and communications platforms.

At the end of February 2018, Egypt’s prosecutor-general issued a decree assigning prosecutors the responsibility of monitoring social media accounts and websites; identifying “false news, statistics, or rumors” that “intend to harm public security, instill fear in individuals, or cause harm to the public interest of the Egyptian state;” and taking any necessary action toward criminal proceedings when such content is found. Additionally, the decree calls on the responsible bodies in media and social media to inform the Public Prosecution when they find such content. Less than two weeks later, the Public Prosecution followed up on the decree by publicly announcing a set of phone numbers across geographic areas in Egypt that would be designated as hotlines for citizen complaints and reports via SMS and WhatsApp of false news and rumors that meet the conditions above.

These measures are not one-off incidents. Egypt’s House of Representatives is currently discussing a much-anticipated 45-article draft Law on Combating Information Technology Crimes (Cybercrime Law) that was sent to the House from the cabinet. The draft law allows authorities to submit website censorship orders for review by a court when “evidence arises that a website broadcasting from inside or outside the state has published any phrases, photos or films, or any promotional material or the like which constitute a crime, as set forth in this law, and poses a threat to national security or compromises national security or the national economy.” The draft law also allows the immediate blocking of websites in “urgent” cases, without first going through the court review process. Beyond website censorship, the draft law includes many provisions, among them articles heavily regulating the use of social media, criminalizing the failure of cybercrime victims to report the crimes committed against them, and empowering authorities to issue travel bans against individuals accused of committing or attempting to commit certain cybercrimes. Much like many other pieces of Egyptian legislation, the presence of terms such as “harm to national security” raises red flags, as such language has previously granted broad discretion to authorities to crack down on peaceful, noncriminal dissent.

This week, at a counter-terrorism workshop held by the Ministry of Justice for judges and prosecutors, Egypt’s Communications Minister Yasser al-Qadi referred to the Cybercrime Law, stating, “After the January 25 Revolution, extremist groups have been able to attract the youth with personality disorders through technological means, so we had to control different social media and digital apps and platforms.” He also added that Egypt would soon have its own social media platform, a competitor to Facebook. In addition to the possible economic impetus behind the creation of such a platform, having a state-run social media platform will enable the state to more closely monitor and surveil its citizens’ posts and interactions. Data on Egyptian citizens is something that authorities have previously sought to acquire. In June 2017, for example, it was reported that Egyptian authorities requested access to “Heaven,” Uber’s internal software that provides live data about customers, drivers, and Uber journeys; the company turned the request down. Phishing attacks against prominent human rights defenders trying to lure them into compromising their passwords have also been reported.

Egyptian authorities also continue to control the flow of information by blocking websites. Since May 2017, at least 497 websites, among them sites for nongovernmental organizations focused on human rights and alternative media platforms such as Mada Masr, have been blocked. After increased use of the Accelerated Mobile Pages Project (AMP) to provide alternative links to blocked content, AMP was itself blocked by Egyptian authorities in February 2018, effectively limiting the access of Egyptians to thousands of websites; Google has since announced the suspension of the service in Egypt. Outside of the realm of website censorship, authorities also continue to use existing legislation to prosecute individuals for speech online through older provisions that criminalize activities such as “spreading false news” and newer legislation such as the Counter-terrorism Law. In December 2017, for example, one individual was arrested for allegedly administering a page on atheism; in a different case, a prominent human rights lawyer faced charges of publishing false news and statements through his Facebook account.

With legislation, regulations, and measures like the aforementioned, be they in the realm of website censorship or the prosecution of citizens for their Facebook posts, the silencing of alternative voices becomes inevitable. The existing and intended practices of the Egyptian state work to guarantee that Egyptian authorities strengthen their control over the official narrative through media, social media, and public statements; that they place doubt around, seek to marginalize, and ultimately eliminate competing narratives; that they pressure media, social media companies, and everyday citizens to track other citizens’ behavior; and that they contribute to a culture in which surveillance, monitoring, and reporting on fellow citizens becomes the norm. Such practices contribute to a reality in which independent media outlets and small NGOs that report human rights violations or counter the mainstream narrative are likely to be targeted and silenced, or even, self-censor; in which the government effectively crowdsources the informant process, empowering regular individuals without legal or judicial authority to become informal policing agents of the state and ultimately, citizen spies; and in which fear colors the interactions of individuals online.

Such a reality exists in clear violation of Egypt’s domestic and international human rights obligations to protect the rights of citizens to freedom of belief, thought, and expression; to privacy; to freedom of the press; and to access information, as detailed in Articles 57, 64, 65, 68, and 70 of the Egyptian Constitution and Articles 17, 18, and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Egypt has ratified. In 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council issued its first resolution on the rights of citizens online and the obligations of states to protect these rights; it, among other things, “affirm[ed] that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice.” Since then, numerous international resolutions and guidelines on the intersection of digital communications and human rights have continued to work to safeguard the rights of citizens to access information, to allow individuals to enjoy the use of social media in a manner that does not contravene the rights of others, and to honor the rights of everyday citizens to privacy. One would be hard-pressed to argue that the Egyptian state’s broad implementation of information-related and cybercrime measures—previous iterations of which have disproportionately targeted peaceful human rights defenders and independent voices, rather than terrorists or extremists—meet the standards set forth by international law.

Though the communication minister’s remarks at this week’s workshop emphasize that the driving purpose behind the draft Cybercrime Law and other information-related measures is the issue of terrorism, if previous pieces of legislation and the practices of the Egyptian state are any indication, these new tools will only enable the Egyptian state to further silence peaceful independent voices who further narratives contrary to the official state story at the pretense of fighting terrorism, while taking the country well on its way into a dark future of surveillance by the security state.