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Egypt’s Digital Opposition has reached “Critical mass”

May 6, 2014

When a government attempts to quell dissent on the street, when distributing leafletson the street advocating a perfectly legal political position is met with arrest and jail sentences, when democratic protests are being met with police and mob violence, there is only one place where the political debate will be able to move: back online.

And the state does not like it one bit.

To understand the situation we currently stand in, some background is necessary.

Following the removal of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 by the power of protests, Egypt witnessed an explosion in the number of social media users. Twitter, once the privileged domain of techies, activists, and journalists became a primary discussion forum for all. Following activist movements, political parties and government agencies, including the army, started Facebook pages and began publishing their communiqués there before anywhere else. As dissent and protest movement endured on the street throughout 2011 and into 2012, the online realm was an extension of real life debates: there was no dichotomy between what happened online and away-from-keyboard, an important distinction to notice.

After a year and a half of direct military rule, June 2012 brought about the election of a civilian yet sectarian president, Mohamed Morsi. On the first anniversary of his rule, on June 30th 2013, massive protests demanding his resignation and early elections gave the minister of defense, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, an excuse to stage a coup and remove Morsi on July 3rd. Al-Sisi has been the effective ruler ever since, despite the appointment of a nominal interim president.

Throughout all three post-revolution phases—military, then Islamic, then military rule again—the government has attempted to police or at least monitor cyberspace, with a hostility that seemed to have increased with time. In doing so, it has deployed all arrows in its quiver—police, army, prosecution, courts, media—in a feeble attempt to extend its online reach. In so doing, the state has adopted a multi-pronged tactic that we can analyze and break down.

1. Legal persecution
Prominent bloggers have been attacked and arrested for alleged crimes committed online—though these are but flimsy excuses. Alaa Abdel Fattah, for instance, was arrested in March 2013 on charges of “provoking violence”, with the evidence submitted being tweets from a pseudonymous user mentioning Abdel Fattah. He was acquitted, only to be arrested again in November 2013 on charges of organizing a protest on Twitter. He was arrested for nearly four months before being released on bail in March 2014. Though perhaps the most prominent, he is far from being the only one. To mention but a few of the most recent examples, blogger Ahmed Anwar found himself the target of a lawsuit over a YouTube video mocking the police – the prosecutor general, a man with little understanding of both humor and free speech, charged Anwar with “Insulting the Ministry of Interior”, “Abusing the internet”, and “harassment”. Sentenced to three months in jail, Anwar was able to commute his sentence after paying 10,000 EGP (1,500 USD). On February 15 2014, police arrested the administrator of a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Facebook page, charging him with “spreading false news, inciting violence against security forces” as well as “spreading personal information of security officers”. During the same week, a Cairo University junior staff was suspended from his work on accusations of “insulting the university teaching staff” on his personal Facebook page.

This does not apply only to political dissent, but religious freedom and freedom of expression as well. Atheist blogger Alber Saber found himself guilty of “contempt of religion” for opinions expressed online, and sentenced to three years in prison in December 2012. Nearly lynched by an angry mob and facing prison, Saber left the country. And just last March, a senior police officer announced the formation of aspecial police taskforce to track down the members of an online atheist discussion group.

The modus operandi is simple: extend the reach of draconian laws (themselves of dubious constitutionality) to the online realm, and utilize politicized courts to crackdown on internet activists.

2. Online surveillance and hacking
The Mubarak government had contracted various international surveillance companies to access private data on activists and online dissenters. Egypt used FinFisher to monitor social media activity and VoIP communications, as well as software supplied by the UK’s Gamma to eavesdrop on Skype calls and by American company Narus to monitor emails, text messages, chats. And this practice did not end with Mubarak. In February 2014, researchers from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab identified the current Egyptian government (and quite possibly the previous) as a client of a new computer spyware, called “Remote Control System” (RCS). RCS, produced by Milan-based company “Hacking Team”, is sold exclusively to governments as a “the hacking suite for governmental interception” that can capture data on the target’s computer, without it being sent over the internet; monitor encrypted internet communications, record Skype calls, emails, IMs, and passwords typed into a browser; and remotely turn on a device’s webcam and microphone.

3. Online Censorship
On January 28th 2011, a very nervous Mubarak decided to pull the plug on the internet, hoping that this would discourage protests and prevent activists from organizing; as we now know this plan failed miserably, but it also attracted massiveinternational attention to Egypt. Successive governments have since been very weary of outright censorship; but in some instances, their sentiment of panic overtakes good judgment and the government decides to block access to particular websites.

The latest instance of this occurred on March 29th 2014, days after Marshall Al-Sisi announced his intention to run for president; many independent activists, as well as Muslim Brotherhood supporters and other detractors of Al-Sisi took to Twitter, then subsequently to Facebook, with an insulting hashtag in Arabic that read “vote for the pimp”. Statistics on the use of the hashtag were widely shared by its supporters as proof of the generalized dislike of Al-Sisi, which prompted the authorities to block access to Twitter analytics website Keyhole.

Attempts to censor online speech have also, at times, been the work of proxy groups to the security apparatus rather than direct government intervention. Those “electronic committees”, coordinated groups of users, have been regularly deployed to spread pre-written positions (copied down to the last typo, in a beautiful testimony of collective idiocy) on discussion fora and Facebook pages, or to derail conversations by posting inflammatory comments. In several documented instances, for example, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood would conduct coordinated “reporting” campaigns to flag opposing Facebook pages and have them suspended, on supposed violations of terms of conducts.

In the face of this onslaught on the internet, what is the future of online dissent? Well, it’s still very bright. Egyptians are rapidly taking control of their cyberspace despite the pressures, and have been mounting successful campaigns, ranging from politics towomen’s rights. In the face of censorship, they have proven to be quick to adoptcircumvention tools—and more importantly, sharing the love. And perhaps most importantly, the rapid democratization of internet access and its increased use by people from all walks of life and across age categories as a discussion forum will make it increasingly difficult for any government to threaten internet use. And this is perhaps the most interesting development of social media over the past years: Egypt has reached a critical mass whereby numbers are strength.

Of course the battle is an uphill one, with the imbalance of resources between governments and activists; but neither is it settled. Far from it.

Originally published on Swedish Pen’s “The Dissident Blog”.

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