Smoke rises in Rafah in Sinai near the border with southern Gaza Strip October 29, 2014. (Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Analysis

North Sinai’s Information Blackout

As kinetic operations have ebbed and flowed in Egypts North Sinai throughout the last eight years, residents have endlessly borne the brunt of instability from violent attacks, air strikes, and the far-reaching impacts of deep infrastructural damage. In addition to the violence, one of the most enduring and impactful features of frequent counterterrorism operations and measures has been the repeated shutdown of communications networks throughout the region.

The shutdowns began in 2013. As the insurgency in North Sinai grew in the aftermath of the ouster of former president Mohammed Morsi, residents experienced unexpected and interminable blackouts of their communications networks. These shutdowns would often coincide with violent attacks by militant groups or tactical maneuvers by the military. Anonymous security sources have previously stated that the shutdowns are a deliberate and necessary tactic to prevent the remote detonation of explosives and thwart enemy communications.

Yet experts have repeatedly questioned the logic of this justification, arguing that armed groups have long learned to rely on radios and other circumvention mechanisms to avoid detection on Egyptian networks and evade the blackouts. The shutdowns, they argue, do not effectively achieve any meaningful military advantage and, instead, collectively punish the civilian population. Civil society groups have criticized the disproportionate and unjustified impacts of the blackouts on residents. Every aspect of normal life is suspended when communication networks are suspended: it is impossible to call an ambulance, send money to family members, access online educational material, or chat with a friend. 

Beyond the shutdowns, a fundamental grievance of residents has been the neglect of basic services and infrastructure by the central government. This neglect has exacerbated the effects of the blackouts on the daily lives of communities in the region. In response, the government often announces new efforts to expand services to deprived areas. Recently, the governor of North Sinai announced plans to further develop communications services in the governorate by providing internet services in remote villages, increasing internet speeds, and offering more government services electronically as part of Egypts broader digitalization project. In February of this year, three schools in Sheikh Zuweid allowed students to take their exams via the internet on tablets for the first time. 

Despite these apparent government efforts to increase overall connectivity, the use of shutdowns to disrupt communications during militant attacks has continued. In July 2020, there was a large-scale attack by militants on the Rabia military checkpoint in Bir Abd and the internet and electricity were immediately shut down. 

There is some evidence, though, to suggest that the shutdowns have shifted quantitatively and qualitatively since late 2019. As fighting eased, experts and residents have reported that the shutdowns are more efficiently targeted and, overall, less frequent. While the area east of al-Arish remains mostly blacked out, services to small towns and villages west of the governorate’s capital is more consistent. When shutdowns do occur, services are offline for hours—rather than days—and have decreased in regularity, suggesting that the tactic has been honed.

 It is nearly impossible, however, for external observers to technically assess the frequency and duration of the blackouts. Internet censorship researchers often rely on data from the Internet Outage and Detection Analysis (IODA) project, which is part of the Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA) at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. Data from this project is usually relied upon to measure network shutdowns throughout the world, but there is no data available for the North Sinai region. The lack of data is not necessarily due to deliberate state intervention—many regions in Egypt do not have IODA data due to low population density, lack of adequate communications infrastructure, and other reasons. In lieu of data, reports by civilians on the ground are the most reliable source of information.

But it is incredibly dangerous for citizens to openly criticize the blackouts or speak candidly to journalists or researchers about their frequency and duration. Reporting from the ground has been effectively outlawed by the state, particularly after the passage of the Counter-terrorism Law in 2015, which details steep fines for publishing false news” about terrorist attacks or counter-terror operations. Researchers and journalists focused on North Sinai have been arrested in the past on spurious charges. Ismail al-Iskandrani, a researcher and journalist specialized in North Sinai security affairs, was arrested in 2015 and accused of publishing military secrets because of his research on North Sinai. After being held in pretrial detention for two and a half years, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a military court. The harsh repression of civil society, together with the communication blackouts, produces a complete information vacuum in the area.

Even if the shutdowns have become less frequent and more efficiently targeted, increased digitization in the aftermath of COVID-19 may ultimately deepen their consequences, particularly as basic services in sectors like health and education become more dependent on online platforms. Egypts own vaccine rollout is administered through an online portal and secondary exams are increasingly run through internet-connected tablets. In February of this year, parents and students complained about the lack of internet during the first week of exams, raising questions surrounding inequality in access to education in North Sinai.

International law has correspondingly evolved its assessment of the importance of internet and communication access. In 2016, internet access was declared a human right by a non-binding Resolution at the UN General Assembly, based on Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And last year, the UN Human Rights Committee released a new interpretation of Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, extending the right to peaceful assembly to the online sphere and specifying that states “cannot block internet networks or close down any website because of their roles in organizing or soliciting a peaceful assembly.”

While international law is catching up, tangible recourse for residents of North Sinai remains severely limited. A first step towards mitigating harmful consequences for residents would be greater transparency from the state about the frequency and duration of the blackouts. However, this kind of reporting is highly unlikely to happen anytime soon. And without adequate reporting, the blackouts and their far-reaching repercussions, will remain hidden.