Then presidential candidate Abdel-Fattah El Sisi speaks at a campaign event via video conference. (photo from El Sisi's official Facebook page)

Egypt’s Online Repression Thwarts Both Growth and Democracy

08/16/2019 . By Joey Shea

After outlawing protests and slowly dominating traditional media, the Egyptian state has embarked upon a multipronged strategy aimed at completely controlling and curtailing digital spaces, including censorship through website blocking, arrests based on social media posts, hacking attempts against activists, and the legalization of these practices through a myriad of new draconian laws. The constitutional referendum in April provided further evidence of this trend and offers a warning for what may be to come. While Egypt’s government has boasted about plans to turn the country into a digital hub for Africa and the Middle East, the state’s proclivity for digital censorship belies such initiatives—to say nothing of the underlying freedoms denied by the state. The relentless censorship of opposition websites shows how even a small campaign is considered a significant threat, suggesting the current regime is both deeply insecure and internally conflicted.

Since coming to power in 2013, the regime of President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi has worked to constrict spaces for sharing information and organizing opposition. There have been several waves of attacks on the press, including 2018’s Law Regulating the Press, Media, and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation. The state began to block websites en masse in 2017, when 21 websites were blocked in a single day. Independent news organizations like Mada Masr woke up to discover their websites completely inaccessible inside Egypt, with no official comment or explanation from the regime. The Cybercrime Law of 2018 set further restrictions on online activity.

When the state presented amendments to the Egyptian constitution in March, the government treated them as a fait accompli. The Egyptian media is either directly state-owned or state-controlled—the intelligence services have even purchased independent media outlets via the company Eagle Capital, resulting in deeper centralization—making it impossible for the opposition to communicate using these traditional platforms. Egyptian newspapers and television also failed to report on any opposition to the amendments. In accordance with the Protest Law, opposition parties submitted a request to the interior ministry to peacefully protest the constitutional amendments on March 28; this request was denied.

Amid these circumstances, anonymous activists launched the Batel campaign website opposing constitutional amendments on April 9. Batel—the Arabic for “void” or “futile”—claimed that both the constitutional referendum set for April 22 and the broad political course in Egypt were illegitimate. The website for the campaign included a voting tool which invited Egyptians to “participate in the free referendum” and to express their true opinion on the proposed amendments. It asked Egyptians to declare the amendments void by signing their petition. By the end of April 9, the website had been blocked on all four major Egyptian internet service providers.

This was the beginning of a game of digital whack-a-mole between the organizers of the campaign and Egyptian security authorities, with each new copy of the website blocked within hours of its launch. In addition to their series of websites and mirrors, the campaign also included voting mechanisms via Facebook Messenger, the Telegram messaging app, and email. By the end of the voting period on April 22, Batel claimed it had received over 700,000 votes opposing the amendments.

The first Batel website opposing the 2019 constitutional amendments was voiceonline.net and appeared early on April 9. Netblocks, an internet monitoring organization specialized in measuring and reporting internet shutdowns and censorship globally, reported that the site had been blocked on all four major Egyptian ISPs within 12 hours. Batel quickly launched a new domain name (also referred to as a “mirror”) the next day; it was also blocked almost immediately. This pattern continued daily until the last day of voting on April 22, with a total of 10 mirror websites launched and quickly blocked during a two-week period. The speed and consistency of this censorship rivals only a handful of other illiberal and authoritarian regimes, such as Turkey or China. It was clear that both the opposition organizers and the intelligence agencies had prepared for a prolonged censorship and circumvention tug-of-war.

What was not clear, however, was the state’s intentions when Netblocks reported the blockage of 34,000 domain names on April 15. Only a few days after the initial launch of the first “Batel” website, Netblocks reported that the IP address hosting Batel’s campaign and its mirrors had been blocked. It is common practice for businesses to host their website on a shared hosting service, where a single IP address is home to hundreds (or even thousands) of different domain names. The Batel campaign created a series of different domain names hosted on the same IP address to circumvent the regime’s censorship. Egyptian intelligence services had apparently decided to block the underlying IP, making 34,000 other websites inaccessible inside the country.

Netblocks reported another curious blockage. The URL shortening service Bitly was inaccessible for a short period on April 18. This service allows clients to create shortened, customized links that will still connect to the required page. Blocking the service would result in an estimated 34 billion broken links, severely hindering the average everyday processes for many businesses using this service. Access to the service was restored a few hours after Netblocks’ reporting. However, it showed that the state is unafraid to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, which is a deeply concerning approach to censorship.

There are two possible explanations for the blocking of the shared IP and the bit.ly shortening service: First, because the network interference devices were likely produced and sold to Egypt by the Canadian-founded company Sandvine, it is possible that those requesting the block did not understand the full extent of the collateral damage which would result from blocking the IP address of a shared host. An official with limited technical knowledge may have ordered the website to be blocked at all costs without realizing the consequences. It is also possible that those controlling devices knew exactly what would result when blocking the IP address and Bitly, but they simply did not care. Both explanations do not bode well for the future of access to information and freedom of speech in Egypt: there is either an incompetent intelligence service controlling a powerful censorship infrastructure, or enormous collateral damage is not a sufficient deterrent for the regime.

The pattern of censorship documented by Netblocks during the constitutional referendum suggests a deeply insecure and conflicted regime. Despite its efforts, the Batel campaign had limited reach; their Twitter feed had less than 10,000 followers by the final day of the referendum, yet the regime proved it was willing to go to great lengths to stamp out even a small opposition campaign. Even if security agencies were unaware of the collateral damage at first, they surely knew after Netblocks’ report had been widely circulated. Their willingness to accept the resulting collateral damage, with its far-reaching consequences for business and the economy, highlights their deep insecurity and existential fear of the internet—and its potential to spark another mass mobilization. Finally, Sisi has long boasted about plans to transform Egypt into a digital hub in Africa and the Middle East. The regime’s willingness to block access to certain websites at all costs is at odds with this goal. To date, there are over 500 websites blocked inside the country, including many independent news, media and political organizations. It will be incredibly difficult for Egypt to attract the desired investment from the tech sector if blocking such basic services as Bitly becomes normal practice.

The censorship observed during the referendum reveals an insecure regime at odds with itself. These restrictions show no sign of abating. The administrator of a Facebook group supporting former president Hosni Mubarak was arrested in July and is still in detention, though the group’s politics broadly align with the regime’s. A regulator suggested fining two journalists for statements made on their personal Facebook accounts. Both the regime and its opponents have shown their willingness and ability to develop their technical prowess, aiming only to outdo the other.