Joey Shea is a researcher focusing on social, economic and political impacts of technology in the Middle East.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s tough crackdown in the wake of recent protests shows how the state has exploited technologies that were once used to mobilize people during the 2011 revolution.
Social media was celebrated after the revolution as having facilitated the overthrow of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Eight years later, the same platforms are leveraged by an increasingly authoritarian Egyptian state to stifle freedom of expression, arrest ordinary citizens and track political dissidents.
The small, rare protests that erupted across Egypt on Sept. 20 were sparked by Mohamed Ali, a former construction contractor who posted a series of videos on social media alleging corruption by the Egyptian Armed Forces and Mr. el-Sisi. Mr. Ali posted his first video at the beginning of September and quickly rose in fame and notoriety, particularly after accusing Mr. el-Sisi of squandering money on palaces and luxury villas. (The accusations touched a nerve in Egypt, where the poverty rate has risen to 32.5 per cent. Egyptians have also suffered from subsidy cuts rolled out by the government in compliance with the terms of a US$12-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in 2016.)
Mr. Ali has not provided evidence to back his claims, but his videos have catalyzed outrage and caused an uproar on state-aligned and state-owned media outlets. Mr. el-Sisi responded to the allegations in a hastily organized National Youth Conference.
“I built presidential palaces and will build more,” Mr. el-Sisi said. “I will continue to do more and more, but not for me. Nothing is in my name. It is in Egypt’s name.”
When Mr. Ali called for street demonstrations to protest Mr. el-Sisi’s rule, old images from the 2011 revolution flooded social media, often with taglines such as “loading revolution…” and “we will return to Tahrir Square.”
Given the effective ban on protesting since Mr. el-Sisi came to power in a 2013 coup d’état, political analysts expressed skepticism that Mr. Ali’s calls to demonstrate would result in any concrete action on the ground. The Sept. 20 protests stunned observers; the regime responded swiftly and harshly.
Mr. Ali called for further protests on Sept. 27 while the crackdown intensified: social-media platforms experienced intermittent blocking, hundreds of citizens were arrested based on their social-media activity, and pro-regime trolls flooded the internet to spin the online discourse in their favour.
This campaign of suppression flaunted Egypt’s censorship techniques and other tactics used to surveil and target even minor opponents. Over six years, Mr. el-Sisi’s regime has honed these censorship and surveillance strategies.
Leading up to the anticipated protest, the online monitoring organization Netblocks reported multiple instances of network interference. Facebook Messenger was intermittently unavailable, as was Twitter, but neither was blocked completely. A full block of these global platforms would have drawn more international scrutiny, something the government surely hoped to avoid.
Even secure messaging apps were blocked and throttled. Signal, Wire and Telegram are often recommended by digital-security experts because of their strong encryption, disappearing messages and censorship circumvention features. All of these applications measured at least intermittent unavailability during this period.
Digital-security experts suggested the intermittent blocking could be a test in preparation for complete blockages, if large protests were to break out. They also said it might be a preventative effort to slowly disrupt communications and thwart any co-ordination of protest activity. Website blocking in bulk started in 2017, when 21 websites were blocked on May 24 of that year. The number of blocked websites has since reached more than 500.
The legal environment governing internet censorship has also advanced in the state’s interest. The BBC’s website was blocked after their coverage of the recent protests. When Netblocks reported this block, within 24 hours it had been confirmed by an unlikely source – the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation. Makram Mohamed Ahmed, the head of the body responsible for regulating and overseeing media, said the BBC’s website had been blocked due to “inaccurate” coverage of the protests.
Sanctioning news organizations because of unflattering coverage now has a solid legal foundation in Egypt. In 2018, parliament passed two laws containing a number of articles detailing the legal processes by which websites can be blocked by the state.
The Cybercrime Law and the Media Regulation Law contain provisions detailing multiple avenues whereby legal sanctions can be used to block and censor websites. Both laws allow security authorities to block websites if they are deemed a threat to national security. The term national security is a catchall phrase, frequently used to justify broad restrictions on freedom of expression. Now, both the courts and security authorities have a much clearer and explicit mandate to block and censor the internet.
The recent crackdown spotlighted another practice refined throughout Mr. el-Sisi’s tenure: seizing and searching electronic devices, mainly cellphones, and arresting citizens based on photos, private conversations, social-media posts or other content determined to be unfavourable to the regime. A crude and technically unsophisticated method of targeting and surveillance, but terribly efficient.
Human-rights organizations reported that the number of people detained after the Sept. 20 protests reached almost 2,000. The majority of these people have been charged, with allegations of “spreading false news,” “misuse of social media,” “demonstrating without a licence” and “participating in a terrorist group” – accusations commonly associated with politically-motivated freedom of expression cases.
Many of the arrests occurred after a heavy security presence throughout downtown Cairo, with police checkpoints, plainclothes intelligence agents and riot vans present on almost every street corner. Pedestrians were frequently stopped by police, their identity cards checked and mobile phones searched. The public prosecutor issued an order to examine the social-media pages and accounts of those accused of illegally protesting.
The seizure and search of mobile phones is terrifying for Egyptians because there are limited protections against such searches. Police or plainclothes intelligence agents force pedestrians to unlock their cellphone and demand access to their social-media accounts. Security officers then scroll through photos, chats, Facebook and Twitter accounts, looking for evidence of anti-regime sentiment.
Even if someone uses an encrypted, secure messaging application, there are few safeguards once the police have full access and control over the device. An individual must be constantly vigilant, ensuring any sensitive material has been deleted or removed from the device. There was a viral report where a pedestrian had been stopped by police but had run out of data on their mobile phone and could not connect to their social-media accounts. The police officer searching their device was kind enough to provide a hotspot from his phone.
The days when Facebook was praised for its revolutionary and democratizing potential have, thankfully, settled deep into the dustbin. Indeed, researcher Evgeny Morozov wrote an entire book, published less than 20 days before the start of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, warning of the potential for social media to aid authoritarianism. Unfortunately, Egypt has provided a strong proof of concept for his theory – proof that may be strengthened as the full effects of the September protests play out in the coming months.
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