Originally published on Foreign Policy Magazine: Transitions.
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”.
On April 29, analyst, writer, and an essential voice covering Egypt since the 2011 uprising, Bassem Sabry, passed away. He was 31. His death has seen an outpouring of condolences and remembrances on Twitter. A regular contributor to Al Monitor, as well as being published in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Al Masry Al Youm, and more, he was a prolific writer, whose work at once gave invaluable insight into the ongoing Egyptian crisis, and was proof of his love for his country. Below is a eulogy written by his friend and colleague, Mohamed El Dahshan.
I’d like this to be played in my funeral, hopefully after a happy long life. A sublime piece of music http://t.co/7vDZ46QfOd
— Bassem Sabry باسم (@Bassem_Sabry) April 5, 2014
Hit the link above. The music will go well with the text, I think.
Here’s is what I have to tell you about Bassem Sabry:
Bassem was a fundamentally, deeply honest man.
This is perhaps not the first epithet used to describe someone in a eulogy; perhaps it will seem to you as a let-down, if you were expecting flowery superlatives and complex adverbs. And I will use those adverbs and superlatives, too, for Bassem was truly all of them. But all those who read him, whether on his blog or in the local and international press he regularly contributed to, can tell you that he’s an extremely astute writer, a gifted analyst, an indefatigable storyteller, and even through the darkness, optimistic to a fault. He was also an excellent bilingual chronicler of the Egyptian revolution, regularly keeping the world informed. Those who knew him personally – and perhaps those who followed him on twitter for he was consistent online and away-from-keyboard – will add that he was ridiculously kind; he was a hopeless romantic; and an ever-reliable friend. He also had a predilection for self-deprecating humour, and a maintained a running joke about actually being Batman (since, as he rightfully pointed out, him and Batman had never been seen in the same place together).
But few will tell you that he was, too, extremely truthful to himself and others. His fundamentals never changed. He abhorred labels, and as such never advertised his political affiliations. He demanded rights for all a decade ago, as he did yesterday. He stood for the oppressed, never condoned injustice, and never censored himself for an unpopular position. He was always able to reach out, even to those who seemed the most distant.
I’ve known him for 13, 14 years – with a few years of lost contact in between – and I am struggling to remember him an iota different from what he is today. Besides gaining a few kilograms and experimenting with facial hair, he has remained the naturally charming and effortlessly cool guy he always was. Cool not as in trendy – though he was quite the dresser – but cool as in, chill. Or at least that was his façade. He was difficult to faze, and he never let anger get the best of his reasoning, a rare skills in today’s angry, over-caffeinated, over-nicotined Egypt. (And Bassem ran on coffee.) Inside though, he was a boiling mass, and mess, of emotions. He was deeply humanly fallible, and analytically mentally very strong at the same time.
He was also disarmingly sincere. Perhaps never so much as in an article he wrote and published when he turned 30, which was less than two years ago. He posted an English translation , too, which reads like his manifesto for life. It is what I extracted those blockquotes in the article from. Perhaps the best description I can offer you of him, is that he consistently stood by his own words.
And he was a terrible politician – he was too principled for the job. In his tenure as head of the Political Planning Committee of Al-Dostour party, a glistening position he was always extremely low-key about, he attempted to do his work as best as possible amidst of political machinations and personal politics; as his methodical approach to his job – which involved, well, actual planning and consultations – seemed to be inconsistent with the egos at the top, he chose to bow out from his leadership position.
But he had an incredible facility to move across society and circles. Co-owning a film production company with his siblings (another fact he never advertised), he was equally at ease – and more importantly, equally happy I think – on a film set overseeing a Bollywood-style choreography, as he was brainstorming in a smoky living room with some of the country’s most respected political free-thinkers. More importantly though, he always brought something new to the table. A fresh idea. A different perspective. An astute critique. His added-value was unmistakable, whether you asked him for his thoughts about the upcoming elections , a romantic conundrum, or which car you wanted to buy. (I’ve had all those conversations with him, actually.)
In the few hours since Bassem’s passing, I have spoken to numerous friends on four continents. We all cried on the phone, and hung up. The number of people who loved Bassem – whose name, incidentally, means “Smiling” – is surprising. Well, hardly surprising given the person he is, but the deluge of love and the outpour of grief is unlike anything I’ve seen. Friends of his have driven to his house and are just standing there, in the dark of the night, as I type. The Egyptian social media sphere is, literally and across linguistic boundaries, a collective Bassem memorial, or a giant therapy group. Much has been written about the dynamics of grief and the internet, but it always was from an individual perspective, or a collective experience within groups sharing links. What we’re witnessing is deep sadness, like that you would experience at the death of a cousin of a close school friend, but at the scale of a celebrity passing. Those conversations are the online equivalent of hugging strangers at a loved one’s funeral. And many, many have comforted one another tonight.
Beyond mourning a dear friend who left far too soon, I also grieve losing what could have been. Many will say that Bassem could have had a brilliant political career – perhaps so. But he undoubtedly had so much to give. I am sad for a country that he loved deeply, for a future that needed him, and for all those who will never get the chance to meet him. The loss is personal and collective. And it’s infinitely difficult to process.
Do one act of kindness today. And also: send a random nice message to someone, brighten up her or his day.
— Bassem Sabry باسم (@Bassem_Sabry) April 5, 2014
I think I’ll do just that. Here’s my random message to you all, and it’s a prayer: may you be as as kind, as smart, and as loved, as Bassem Sabry. There’s nothing better.
Farewell, Batman. The world is a darker place tonight.
Originally published by the Atlantic Council’s Egypt Source.
It was not a cruel joke, and it appears the tragedy endures: on March 23, the Egyptian army’s research unit posted on its Facebook page a link to an online Google spreadsheet, titled “Registration form for Virus C and HIV/AIDS Patient”, for those wishing to book an appointment for treatment. A few hours later, the Facebook link was removed – but the Google form is still there.
To understand why this is a tragedy, a brief retrospective is warranted.
In late February, Egyptian media trumpeted the news that a military research team had succeeded in creating a diagnosis tool for Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS, that would not require the patient having their blood drawn and had the same accuracy as traditional tests. The machine, named “C-Fast” and which looks like a stapler with a television antenna sticking out of it was dubbed a “mechanical divining rod”, and it identifies an infected patient by pointing at them. It is also remarkably cheap to manufacture, requires no source of energy to function, and is allegedly so sensitive it will start wagging like a happy dog’s tail if an infected patient is in the next room.
It all sounded quite impressive, particularly in a country where Hepatitis C has, according to the World Health Organization, reached an “epidemic spread” with10 to 14 percent of the population infected, amounting to 8 to 10 million people. Though details of how it functions were unclear, it sounded like a real breakthrough.
Very soon thereafter, the public was blown away by another revelation: a second machine, also developed by the military researchers, could cure HIV, Hepatitis C, and according to various cavalier televised statements by members of the “research” team, could also cure any kind of virus, including the H1N5, and, in case one wasn’t sufficiently impressed, could also cure diabetes, skin diseases, and even cancer. And, to quote the official announcement video – it could also detect red termites in palm trees.
The name of this miracle device was “Complete Cure”, or “CC.” Any homonymic resemblance to the Minister of Defense’s name is entirely fortuitous.
The official announcement of this discovery was not made at an international medical conference, but at a press conference dominated by uniformed officers, where one General Doctor Ibrahim Abdel-Ati, in too-new and slightly too-large military fatigues, presented his invention. Abdel-Ati also showed a video of himself telling a bedridden patient, “Your test results are flawless, you used to have AIDS, but now it’s gone,” to which the patient responds “thank God, thank God.”
And then came the part of the speech that has passed into cultural lore in Egypt, spawning endless mockery and countless memes. Abdel Ati said:“I take the AIDS from the patient, then feed it to him as kofta (meatballs) for nourishment. I take the disease, give it to him as nourishment. This is the culmination of scientific achievement.”
As the uniforms in the room clapped, and the presenter gave a clumsy military salute then left the podium, audiences at home blinked in disbelief. They looked at each other to confirm what they had just heard. Many checked the channel they were watching lest it were a prank.
They then took to social media, and “Koftagate” was born.
As the presentation was mercilessly mocked for its form, the content was also being dissected by scientists. The President’s scientific advisor Essam Heggy said it was a “scientific scandal.” MIT virologist Islam Hussein fulminated for days on Facebook at the absurdity of the claims made by Abdel-Ati and his team, ultimately producing an 80-minutes YouTube video in Arabic to refute the invention in an apparent attempt to avenge the entirety of science and logic, which were being trampled. After discussing the shoddy science behind the ‘invention,’ he pointed at the absence of clinical tests, medical proof, or patents backing the claims. Journalists also conducted similar investigative work and found a 2010 patent submission for the diagnosis tool under different names; Abdel-Ati’s never turned up, and none of the senior army physicians interviewed knew of him or his work.
At the same time, the history of the “General Doctor” was also combed through. He is, it turns out, neither a General nor a Doctor; the rank he was awarded by the Army for his work and the title he seemingly awarded himself, in an attempt to distance himself from some deeply suspicious herbal treatments he’d contrived, out of a rental apartment in the South of Cairo. Lawsuits had been filed against him; and in at least two instances he had been sentenced by a court.
But despite all the mounting evidence, many in the state-owned and state-aligned media, along with their various cheerleaders, are defending the ‘discovery’, heaping all-too-familiar accusations of treason over the skeptics. Abdel Ati refuses to answer questions about his medical training and background and stating that Army hospitals will start diagnosing and treating people as of the coming June 30 – the first anniversary of the massive protests that paved the way for the military to depose former president Mohamed Morsi.
We are not discussing a moon landing or even a theoretical physics breakthrough, with little or no immediate life repercussions. This purported medical discovery deeply concerns millions of Egyptian families, with 165,000 new cases yearly – 70 percent of which are related to the poor healthcare system. And while many were mocking Abdel-Ati and his AIDS-flavored meatballs, millions of others were hugging in joyful disbelief and falling to their knees in prayer, thankful that the suffering of their loved ones would come to an end. It’s possible that the unsubstantiated and breathless defense some have been mounting was probably born of despair: they believed it, and consequently it must be true. Anything else would simply be too painful.
Come June 30, my fear is that far too many will go to military hospitals, and will be sent home uncured. Or, worse—be told they are virus-free when they are not.
And until that day I shall pray that I am wrong, because the disappointment which will be inflicted upon millions whose hearts will sink as they realize that the suffering of their parents or children is far from over, and that this disease will probably take their lives, is terribly cruel. False hope is a terrible affliction for a doctor to give. Giving false hope to millions should amount to a crime. And that latest posting, which announced the opening of the waitlist for treatment, means that the army is set on pushing through with this charade.
This is more than a political blunder. This is a national tragedy. And if it plays out the way it seems that it will, than this stab to the heart of the most vulnerable, would be unforgivable.
Originally published on the Atlantic Council’s EgyptSource blog.
Originally published on Foreign Policy: Transitions.
On Jan. 25, the third anniversary of ex-dictator Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, violence broke out on Egypt’s streets, led by mobs exacting vigilante justice on anyone who dared to question the government. The clashes came just a few days after a new constitution was approved with 98.1 percent in a less-than-democratic referendum. Activists who distributed flyers criticizing the vote were attacked and beaten. (Some were also arrested.)
The anniversary brought frightening images of what Egypt has become. When Arab Spring revolutionaries — those who not long ago dethroned Mubarak and who remain associated with the Tahrir Square demonstrations — staged a march to commemorate the events of January 2011 and denounce the military’s renewed dominance, they were met with such violence that one activist, whom I personally know to be very brave, sent out a warning: “Grab a Sisi poster and walk casually out of there. Get the fuck out of downtown. It’s extremely dangerous and useless.”
Street vendors were spotted selling posters of Mubarak; one would be hard-pressed to find a more egregious symbol of Egypt’s backsliding. Yet most of those flooding the streets celebrated a new deity: General — pardon me, Field Marshal — Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
In Alexandria, mobs also assaulted virtually anyone who wasn’t actively declaring their love for Sisi. Angry crowds attacked journalists — andanyone with a camera, really. In one video, several women were assaulted so viciously that they sought refuge in a nearby shop. When the police dragged them out, bystanders insulted, hit, and sexually assaulted the vulnerable women. The police, naturally, did nothing but arrest the victims.
These angry masses are a force to be reckoned with — and they are also a malleable tool in the hands of the security forces. Perhaps the most tragicomic moment of protests occurred when, unaware that the camera was rolling, policemen threatened a private television crew, warning that they would “unleash people on you and tell them you work for Al Jazeera.”
Egypt is spiraling into fascism, and its descent is tangible, palpable, and well-documented. But it is this normalization of mob violence that frightens me most. Whenever you find yourself outnumbered by members of the opposing political camp, there’s a good chance you’ll fall victim to potentially deadly violence. This has become a regular fact of life — and that, to me, is much more frightening than the violence itself.
Barely anyone is condemning this citizen violence. The general attitude among most Egyptians ranges from approbation to indifference to victim-blaming, as if someone who dares to hold a camera deserves to be beaten by random strangers.
In a way, though, this isn’t new. Egypt has a history of vicious grassroots policing. Neighborhood residents regularly pummel robbers caught stealing rather than call the police. Hit-and-run accidents are all too common, because drivers know that if they stop, they might be killed by angry residents and passersby. This is sad, but it’s no joke.
There is also nothing new about the cynical, political use of mob violence against political opponents.
Since the first day of the revolution, mobs have attacked political dissidents, often under the watchful eye of security forces. Countless protesters were assaulted during the revolution’s protests by emotionally charged crowds, barely escaping with their lives. I was the subject of such irrational savagery myself. Nearby army officers watched as a mob manning an ad-hoc checkpoint beat me up. When the officers finally detained me, they told me that I was better off that way: if they let me go I’d be killed by the mob. They were probably right. During my overnight detention in the army encampment, I watched members of those mobs come by and deliver the food, water, and medication they had stolen from protesters to the soldiers, whose explicit approval for these actions was more than obvious.
But perhaps the most visible instance of mob violence was the infamous “Day of the Camel,” when pro-Mubarak thugs, some mounted on horses or camels, attacked protesters in Tahrir Square. Most people attributed the violence to “paid thugs” (baltageya in Arabic), making the implicit assumption that someone would only attack peaceful protesters if they were paid to do so. In reality, many in the assaulting crowd were merely enraged people who took the opportunity to throw a punch.
At the same time, officials exhorted citizens to help guard their neighborhoods as the police cowered. These “popular committees” used their implicitly state-sanctioned role to assault anyone they deemed “suspect” — and at times rob or harass innocents.
But it was only in July 2011 that these freelance thugs won their tongue-in-cheek nickname: “Honorable citizens.” The “honorable citizens,” as distinct from the “paid things,” are the obedient attack hounds of the state. These are the people who, on July 23, 2011, at the implicit request of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces spokespeople and pro-government media, ambushed a march that was heading from Tahrir Square to the Ministry of Defense. It was this mob that murdered 23-year-old Mohamed Mohsen.
Since then, the “honorable citizens” — individuals who find sport in beating protesters with the enthusiastic consent of the security forces — have been a staple of every protest. They take out their frustrations — at political instability, at the bad economy, perhaps even at terrible weather — on protesters. Under Mohamed Morsi’s reign, the “honorable citizens” conducting the mass beatings were the Muslim Brotherhood’s rank-and-file members and supporters. Though more systematic and vicious, the civilians operated with the knowledge and guidance of the ruling authorities, terrorizing those who disagreed with their political ideology. Today they have been replaced by the extreme fringe of Sisi supporters.
Sexual violence is another horrible aspect of mob violence. Mass sexual harassment has been a recent staple of public holidays over the past decade; its use as a political tool is more recent and equally savage. Dozens of sexual assaults and rapes have been reported during the largest protests, as early as 2011. The handful of accounts offered by survivors and volunteers vividly documents the viciousness of the mobs.
Mob violence in Egypt is a worsening nightmare, and though it often goes unreported (since snapping photos of a lynch mob can be bad for your health), it poses an urgent danger to today’s peaceful protest movement. For now, Egypt’s new rulers are quite content to use this violence to their advantage. But they’ll soon discover that they’ve created a monster — one that might one day turn against them. In August 2013, in the wake of theRabaa massacre (when the police murdered hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters), the Ministry of Interior briefly realized the risks entailed by relinquishing the state monopoly on violence. The Ministry attempted to declare the “popular committees” illegal and asked them to disband.
But that attempt to renounce the power of the mob was short-lived, and the current government now appears to have returned to using mob violence against its political opponents.
We have reached the point where these mobs have, for lack of a better term, become self-aware. They no longer need the media or the government to incite their rage. Now they’re ready to attack anyone who dares to snap a photo of graffiti, or is unfortunate enough to do so while looking like a foreigner.
Talk of peace and compromise is meaningless amid a climate of constant intimidation by the mob and the authorities. The atmosphere of violence makes a mockery of any hope of reviving the tourism industry that was once so vital to our economy. A backlash is inevitable. This time around, it won’t take 60 years of army rule.
Originally published in Foreign Policy: Transitions