- Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calling services were blocked over most mobile connections in October 2015 (See Restrictions on Connectivity).
- Al-Araby al-Jadeed and The New Arab were blocked in December 2015, days after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates censored the Qatari news sites. This was the first reported time Egypt has engaged in politically motivated blocking since 2011 (see Blocking and Filtering).
- A new antiterrorism law and a proposed cybercrime bill contain disproportionate penalties for nonviolent online speech (see Legal Environment).
- A 22-year-old was handed a three-year prison term for Facebook posts deemed insulting to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, including a photo of the president with Mickey Mouse ears (see Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities).
- Four Christian teenagers were sentenced to five years in prison for making a video mocking the so-called Islamic State. All four fled the country to seek asylum (see Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities).
Restrictions on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and the unprecedented blocking of news sites led to a decline in internet freedom in Egypt over the past year.
Internet penetration has improved very slowly in the country, which has been plagued by political uncertainty and economic strife since the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime president Hosni Mubarak. Space for political opposition has dwindled both under former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, as well as under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who as defense minister and head of the armed forces removed Morsi from power in June 2013. A new constitution was passed by referendum in January 2014, and presidential elections that May brought el-Sisi to power with over 90 percent of votes.1 Parliamentary elections in late 2015, boycotted by opposition groups, had a voter turnout of only 10 percent. Within only 15 days, the new parliament approved all but one of the 342 laws that the president had passed through decrees issued in the previous year and a half.2
Despite the existence of nominal guarantees in the constitution, the legal environment has tightened following the 2013 coup. Restrictions on freedom of assembly were passed in November 2013,3 and in September 2014, a new law made it a potentially capital offence to accept funding from foreign countries in order to commit an act “harmful to the national interest, or compromising the country’s sovereignty,” a broad term that activists and journalists worried could apply to critical reporting or online campaigns against human rights abuses. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also face increasing pressure under strict laws requiring them to register with the authorities and obtaining approval for receiving foreign funding.4 In addition, new cybercrime and antiterrorism legislation included harsh penalties for broadly worded crimes applicable to online activities, such as setting up websites that could be construed as being related to terrorism.5 The antiterrorism law was passed in August 2015, despite fervent criticism from local activists and the international human rights NGOs.
As the president stepped up the prosecution of opposition and human rights defenders, his detractors find satire a potent outlet for their frustration, particularly online. After a speech where the president stated he would have readily “sold himself” for the country’s benefit, pranksters put him up for sale on eBay.6 However, tolerance for comedy and satire has been slim. A famous YouTube comedy group was arrested on serious charges for satirical videos, while five teens were sentenced to five years on charges of insulting religion for making a mock execution video in the style of the Islamic State militant group. Several individuals were jailed for online videos that were deemed to have insulted the honor or image of Egyptian women.
- 1“Egypt election: Sisi secures landslide win,” BBC News, May 29, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27614776.
- 2"100 days on, Egypt’s parliament has seen few achievements, much controversy," Al Monitor, April 26, 2016, www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/04/egypt-parliament-100-days-co…, and "Egypt's hollow parliament," Al Jazeera, January 12, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/01/egypt-hollow-parliamen….
- 3David D. Kirkpatrick, "New law in Egypt effectively bans street protests," The New York Times, November 25, 2013, http://nyti.ms/1EY7Lyi.
- 4David D. Kirkpatrick, “Human Rights Groups in Egypt Brace for Crackdown Under New Law,” The New York Times, December 26, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/27/world/middleeast/human-rights-groups-….
- 5Amira Al Hussaini, "Egypt's Anti-Terrorism Law to Target Internet," Global Voices, January 31, 2014, http://bit.ly/1VaZPgS.
- 6"Egypt's Sisi 'put up for sale' on eBay after speech," Al Jazeera, February 25, 2016, www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/02/egypt-sisi-mocked-offering-sell-16022504….
Poor telecommunications infrastructure and relatively high costs continue to pose obstacles to universal internet access in Egypt. The government’s control over the internet backbone dampens market competition and centralizes control over the internet. Although the privately held mobile internet market is more diverse, VoIP services continue to be restricted over mobile broadband networks.
Availability and Ease of Access
The development of Egypt’s information and communications technology (ICT) sector has been a strategic priority since 1999, when former president Hosni Mubarak created the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) to lead Egypt’s transition into the information age.1 Since then, ICT use has increased rapidly, with internet penetration growing from 21.6 percent in 2010 to 35.9 percent by the end of 2015, according to figures from the International Telecommunication Union.2 Mobile internet users via mobile phones or USB modems accounted for roughly 46 percent of all internet use, with ADSL use at around 34 percent. Egypt’s mobile phone penetration rate was 108.2 percent in April 2016,3 amounting to over 95 million mobile subscriptions, as well as 26.08 million mobile internet subscriptions.4
The World Bank, “Literacy rate, adult total (% of people ages 15 and above),” 2012, http://bit.ly/1BUA0pA. Although these figures are promising, there are a number of obstacles hindering access to ICTs, including an adult literacy rate of only 74 percent, poor telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas and urban slums, and flagging economic conditions.5
Broadband prices have been slowly decreasing, despite the existence of a dominant state-owned internet provider, with increased competition from mobile providers. While a basic capped subscription costs around US$ 5.60, an unlimited 1 Mbps connection costs around US$ 16 (EGP 140) per month. Moreover, most providers implement a cap on high-speed internet, even on so called “unlimited” connections, under what has been marketed since 2007 as a “fair use policy.”
Furthermore, the overall poverty of Egyptian households naturally impedes access to broadband internet.6 Telephone lines are not universal, with large segments of the country unconnected to the landline telephone grid. Even when they are, the phone infrastructure, based on antiquated underground copper lines, frequently does not allow for speeds above 1 Mbps. In the ITU’s ICT Development Index, a composite index which compares developments in ICT across countries, Egypt ranked 100 out of 167 countries in 2015, 11 spots lower than in the previous year.7
Restrictions on Connectivity
The Egyptian government has centralized internet infrastructure and fiber-optic cables into highly controllable “chokepoints.”8 In addition, virtually all of Egypt’s telecommunications infrastructure is owned by Telecom Egypt, a state-owned company. The arrangement makes it easy to suspend internet access or decrease speeds, as was the case during the 2011 revolution. From January 27 to February 2, 2011,9 authorities disabled the country’s Border Gateway Protocol Routes, shutting down all internet traffic in less than one hour.10 Telecommunications companies were then ordered to cut mobile internet and text-messaging services under the terms of strict agreements they had signed with regulators. At the time, state intelligence agencies claimed that “foreign intelligence [was] using communication technologies to plan terrorist actions.”11
In October 2015, operators confirmed news reports that the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) had blocked VoIP services on mobile networks, although they were denied by the regulator.12 It is technically prohibited to make international calls from mobile networks under Article 72 of the 2003 Telecommunications Law, which forbids the “by-passing [of] international telephone calls by any means whatsoever.”13 Periodic blockages of VoIP traffic over mobile networks were found as early as 2010.14 The debate over VoIP had flared up in June 2013 after the NTRA announced the establishment of a committee to "monitor" communications on free messaging apps WhatsApp and Viber, pending a potential decision to block or restrict them. The NTRA stated the rationale was economic.15 On November 3, 2013, responding to one newspaper’s allegations, the NTRA denied that it was considering imposing charges for Viber and WhatsApp use.16
The Egyptian mobile phone market is divided between three companies. Vodafone Egypt, which is 55 percent owned by the private company Vodafone, enjoys the greatest market share with 40.5 percent. Mobinil was recently rebranded “Orange Egypt” in March 2016 and has a market share of 33 percent. It is almost 99 percent owned by its French parent company.17 Finally, Etisalat Misr has a 24 percent market share. The company is 66 percent owned by Etisalat, an Emirati company with strong ties to that country’s rulers.18 The state-owned company, Telecom Egypt, obtained a license to establish a new mobile telephone company in April 2014 but has yet to launch services.
In the fixed-broadband market, Telecom Egypt (under the banner TE Data) controls 63 percent of the ADSL market.19 Egypt’s main internet service providers (ISPs), also known as “Class A” ISPs, are Etisalat Egypt, LINKdotNET, and Vodafone data. These companies lease lines from TE Data and resell bandwidth to over 200 smaller ISPs.
Mobile service providers and ISPs are regulated by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) and governed by the 2003 Telecommunication Regulation Law. The NTRA’s board is chaired by the ICT minister and includes representatives from the defense, finance, and interior ministries; the state security council; the presidency; workers’ unions; as well as public figures, experts, and other military figures.20 Officially, the NTRA is responsible for regulating the telecommunications industry21 and furthering ICT development through projects like the “eMisr” National Broadband Plan outlined in late 2011.22 The NTRA also conducts analysis of the telecommunication market and publishes research to encourage investment.
- 1Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT), “Telecommunications,” 2015, http://bit.ly/1F9U4w6.
- 2“Percentage of Individuals Using the Internet” International Telecommunication Union, http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/stat/default.aspx.
- 3MCIT, “Key Indicators Viewer,” July 2016. http://www.new.egyptictindicators.gov.eg/en/Indicators/_layouts/KeyIndi….
- 4MCIT, “ICT Indicators in Brief,” May 2016, http://www.egyptictindicators.gov.eg/en/Publications/PublicationsDoc/IC…, and
- 5The World Bank, “Literacy rate, adult total (% of people ages 15 and above),” 2012, http://bit.ly/1BUA0pA.
- 6World Bank, “Egypt, Arab Republic,” http://data.worldbank.org/country/egypt-arab-republic?display=default.
- 7International Telecommunication Union, Measuring the Information Society Report 2015, 2015, https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/publications/misr2015….
- 8James Glanz and John Markoff, “Egypt Leaders Found ‘Off’ Switch for Internet,” The New York Times, February 15, 2011, http://nyti.ms/nTX2HK.
- 9Erica Chenoweth, “Backfire in the Arab Spring,” Middle East Institute, September 1, 2011, http://bit.ly/1W8Refh.
- 10Iljitsch van Beijnum, “How Egypt did (and your government could) shut down the internet,” Ars Technica, January 30, 2011, http://bit.ly/1i2l5qS.
- 11Ameera Fouad, “Saying no to mobile phones,” Ahram Online, February 2-8, 2012, http://bit.ly/1NIfDWi.
- 12"The national regulator responds to the blocking of free calls," Dot Masr, October 5, 2015, http://bit.ly/2f0zd2C.
- 13Telecommunication Regulation Law No. 10 of February 2003, www.tra.gov.eg/uploads/law/law_en.pdf.
- 14"Confusion reigns over the status of Internet calling apps," Mada Masr, October 6, 2015, www.madamasr.com/news/confusion-reigns-over-status-internet-calling-apps.
- 15"Egypt considers banning Viber, WhatsApp," Ahram Online, June 8, 2013, http://bit.ly/1KO112u. x.
- 16“NTRA: Viber, WhatsApp, BBM are free and cannot be priced," Al Masry al Youm, November 3, 2013, http://bit.ly/1KaMFeZ.
- 17"Are you Orange?" Mada Masr, March 14, 2016, www.madamasr.com/news/economy/are-you-orange.
- 18Etisalat Group, "Results Q4 2015" investor presentation, March 10, 2016, www.etisalat.com/en/system/docs/12-4-2013/Q4-2015-ResultsPresentation.p….
- 19International Telecommunication Union, "Telecom Egypt Data S.A.E. (TE Data)," accessed July 2015, http://bit.ly/1MmT7TF.
- 20National Telecom Regulatory Authority, “Board Members,” accessed April 16, 2013, http://bit.ly/1LcI2TJ.
- 21National Telecom Regulatory Authority, “NTRA Function and Role,” accessed April 16, 2013, http://bit.ly/1URa4oH.
- 22National Telecom Regulatory Authority and MCIT, “eMisr National Broadband Plan,” 2011, http://bit.ly/1JfcaI7.
Egypt blocked two Qatari-owned news sites during the coverage period, marking the first time the authorities had ever used this method of censorship. While one lawsuit to ban Facebook was rejected, another has sprung up, and Facebook’s Free Basics service was banned two months after it was instituted. Digital activism has waned amid widespread fear and self-censorship around political organizing, although Egyptians have used satire and comedy to push the boundaries on sensitive issues.
Blocking and Filtering
In an unprecedented move, authorities blocked access to two news sites over the coverage period, signaling a new willingness to engage in politically motivated blocking. Following similar moves by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, 1 in December 2015 Egypt blocked the Qatari-owned news site al-Araby al-Jadeed and its English-language equivalent The New Arab.2 The Egyptian government did not acknowledge any decision to block the website. The move may have come under pressure from Saudi and Emirati leaders, given the recent rapprochement between Egypt and the Gulf Arab countries. It also came shortly before the fifth anniversary of the January 25 revolution. As of mid-2016, it remained blocked on most ISPs.
Generally speaking, Egypt rarely blocks political, social, or religious content online. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and blog-hosting services are freely available, despite numerous attempts to ban them. In August 2015, a court rejected a lawsuit stemming from May 2014 in which a lawyer pressed charges against the prime minister and the minister of telecommunications, arguing that Facebook is used to spread immorality, rumors, and false news detrimental to the state. The State Litigation Authority argued that blocking Facebook would impede on citizens’ constitutional rights, pointing out that millions use the website to share photos and express their opinions. It also added that even repressive countries like Saudi Arabia had not blocked the site. In ultimately rejecting the lawsuit, the court pointed out that the right to access information was a part of citizens’ development rights. However, the court added that the state should block content threatening to national security.3 In January 2016, a similar lawsuit emerged to ban Facebook and its mobile app "for its grave danger to national security and societal peace." As of July 2016, the verdict had had been thrice postponed.4
Egyptian courts have consistently ruled to ban pornographic websites.5 Rulings by administrative courts in 2015 and 2009 were not implemented; a separate court case from 2013 decided against a ban on online pornography.6 Previously, the ban was estimated to cost as much as EGP 100 million (US$ 14 million),7 with a significant effect on internet speeds. Civil society organizations have objected to the threat of a ban, both on grounds of freedom of expression but also because of the high expense. Nevertheless, several ISPs have implemented the court’s decision on a voluntarily basis, offering a “safe internet service” to subscribers.
According to the most recent transparency reports published by Facebook, Google, and Twitter, Egypt has not requested these companies remove user-generated content on their platforms over the past year. Instances of direct government pressure on news sites to remove content are rare, but online journalists did report receiving a directive to refrain from reporting on an event in August 2014. A public prosecutor reportedly issued a gag order targeting news websites regarding the killing of four people by the police on the northern Alamein desert highway.8 This was the first instance of a media gag order that applied to online media alongside print. The Egyptian president has also met occasionally with the editors-in-chief of the main news outlets to admonish them for not towing the line.
Media, Diversity, and Content Manipulation
At a time when traditional media is suffering from what several independent newspaper editors have referred to as unseen level of homogeneity, online media is also struggling to maintain its independence.9 A survey by researchers at Northwestern University in Qatar found that only 25 percent of Egyptians agreed in 2015 that “The media can report the news independently without interference from officials,” down from 27 percent in 2013. Egypt ranked lower than Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the UAE. Similarly, the amount of people who agreed that “It is okay to express unpopular ideas on the internet” fell from 48 to 45 percent.10
Online journalists are often reluctant to cross red lines on sensitive topics, which include sectarian tensions, sexual liberty, the Muslim Brotherhood, detainees, military operations in the Sinai, and the military’s outsized role in the national economy. A provision in the August 2015 antiterrorism law criminalizes the publication of any information regarding militant attacks that contradicts official government statements, punishable by two years in prison.11 Those working for English-language outlets enjoy greater editorial freedom, while Arabic-language reporters fear that critical reports will affect their long-term professional prospects. Many experience online harassment from paid commentators. Those working for outlets affiliated or aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood face heavy prison sentences and several have been accused of supporting a terrorist organization.12
The Egyptian blogosphere has lost much of its vitality over the past few years. Attacks against bloggers have had a chilling effect; the increased popularity of Facebook and Twitter in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution has also led many key writers to focus their attention and content creation there. Registering a local .eg domain requires the submission of personal data and copies of a national ID, as well as a commercial registry for top level domains. Online-only news websites are not recognized by the state as news outlets, unless connected to a print newspaper, making it tough to obtain press credentials, gain access to sources or fact-check information with officials.
The economic viability of independent news websites is constantly under threat, as exemplified by the string of closures and financial difficulties experienced by most. The landscape is dominated by the online versions of state-owned newspapers or those benefiting from the backing of government-connected financiers.13 The most widely read news outlets, per the most recent Alexa ranking, are primarily tabloids, news portals aligned with the government, and sports websites.14
Facebook launched its “Free Basics” service in October 2015, which allowed users on the Etisalat mobile network to access certain internet websites and platforms for free. The service was suspended in December, weeks before the fifth anniversary of the January 25 protests, apparently over a licensing issue.15 However, Reuters later reported that the government may have suspended Free Basics "after the U.S. company refused to give the Egyptian government the ability to spy on users."16
Digital activism and political organizing have been largely subdued over the past several years due to fears of arrest, harsh jail sentences, and even murder by police forces while attending protests. A November 2013 law has effectively banned protest and given free rein to police in cracking down on demonstrations.17 Given the strong overlap of online and offline activism, especially for political activists, the chilling effect and the overall political disappointments that many have endured since 2011 have led to a decrease in political engagement, both on the streets and in writing. For instance, the website WikiThawra, the most reliable resource tracking numbers of imprisoned protesters, stopped operating in mid-2014, largely due to the organizers’ disappointment in the current political situation.18
However, some daring Egyptians have used satire and comedy to push the boundaries on political, social, and religious issues. On January 25, 2016, the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, television comedian Shady Hussein and actor Ahmed Malek recorded and published a prank video in which they distributed “balloons” made of condoms to police recruits on the street. Both Hussein and Malek had been critically injured in revolutionary protests. The video amassed upwards of a million views in one day and resulted in death and legal threats against the two creators.19
- 1"Egyptian authorities block access to The New Arab," The New Arab, December 31, 2015. https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2015/12/31/the-new-arab-blocked-….
- 2"Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt block access to Qatari-owned news website," The Guardian, January 5, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jan/05/saudi-arabia-uae-egypt-bl….
- 3"The administrative court merits on the rejection of the lawsuit to ban Facebook in Egypt," Youm7, August 25, 2015, http://bit.ly/2ek4jSP.
- 4"Today, the court considers a lawsuit to ban Facebook in Egypt for threatening national security," Youm7, May 15, 2016, http://bit.ly/2eWfN0n.
- 5"Egypt’s court orders ban on porn websites," Ahram Online, May 20, 2015, http://bit.ly/1Oqs61j.
- 6"Egypt prosecutor orders Internet porn ban," Daily News Egypt, November 8, 2012, http://bit.ly/1KihwTP.
- 7"New case on banning porn websites in Egypt adjourned," Ahram Online, June 1, 2013, http://bit.ly/1Oqs61j.
- 8Mohamed El Dahshan and Rayna Stamboliyska, Egypt: News Websites and Alternative Voices, Article 19 and Heliopolis Institute, 2014, http://www.article19.org/data/files/medialibrary/37780/Egypt-Report-for….
- 9Mohamed El Dahshan and Rayna Stamboliyska, Egypt: News Websites and Alternative Voices, Article 19 and Heliopolis Institute, (London: Free World Centre, 2014) http://bit.ly/1KramwE.
- 10Northwestern University in Qatar, “Media Use in the Middle East, 2015 - A six-nation survey”, April 2015, http://bit.ly/1Y41J5f.
- 11"Draft Terrorism Law (full text)," [in Arabic] Al Masry Al Youm, July 4, 2015, www.almasryalyoum.com/news/details/768074.
- 12Mohamed El Dahshan and Rayna Stamboliyska, Egypt: News Websites and Alternative Voices, Article 19 and Heliopolis Institute, (London: Free World Centre, 2014) http://bit.ly/1KramwE.
- 13Leslie T Chang, "The news website that’s keeping press freedom alive in Egypt," The Guardian, January 27, 2015, http://bit.ly/1BuOn6k.
- 14Alexa, “Top Sites in Egypt,” accessed July 18 2016, http://www.alexa.com/topsites/countries/EG.
- 15Leila Fadel, “Egypt Cracks Down on Free Facebook Service,” National Public Radio, January 3, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/01/03/461843931/egypt-cracks-down-on-free-faceb…
- 16"Exclusive: Egypt blocked Facebook Internet service over surveillance – sources," Reuters, April 1, 2016, www.reuters.com/article/us-facebook-egypt-idUSKCN0WY3JZ.
- 17David D. Kirkpatrick, "New law in Egypt effectively bans street protests," The New York Times, November 25, 2013, http://nyti.ms/1EY7Lyi.
- 18Thomas Hughes and Emad Mubarak, "Censorship in Egypt: Online and offline," Mada Masr, November 30, 2014, http://bit.ly/1P0Jrju.
- 19“Egypt TV Personalities Face Arrest for ‘Condom Balloons Police Prank’ Amid Calls for Boycott,” Egyptian Streets, January 26, 2016, http://egyptianstreets.com/2016/01/26/egypt-tv-personalities-face-arres….
Several new laws threaten free expression online. An antiterrorism law was passed in August 2015, and a cybercrime law is under consideration. Both laws include harsh penalties for online activities, which activists and observers warn could be used to prosecute dissidents and opposition political parties. Several users have been arrested or imprisoned over the coverage period for laws related to insulting the president, inciting debauchery, or contempt of religion. The monitoring of cyberspace by the authorities remains a high concern.
Egypt’s constitution, amended on January 18, 2014,1 contains articles that address and nominally guarantee freedom of the press, stating that Egyptians “have the right to own and issue newspapers and establish visual, audio and digital media outlets.” According to Article 70, “the law shall regulate ownership and establishment procedures for visual and radio broadcast stations in addition to online newspapers.” This wording implies that even online sources of information could be regulated and their owners may be required to seek government approval in order to operate, as is currently the case with newspapers. Article 71 states that censorship is forbidden “in any way” and no individuals should be punished for publications. However, exceptions are made for “times of war or general mobilization,” with crimes delineated for “incitement to violence,” “discrimination amongst citizens, or impugning the honor of individuals.”2
Article 211 outlines the establishment of a “National Media Council” tasked with regulating “the affairs of radio, television, and printed and digital press, among others” (Article 211) and ensuring that the press maintains a commitment to “professional and ethical standards, as well as national security needs.” Furthermore, Article 57 states that private communications “may only be confiscated, examined or monitored by causal judicial order, for a limited period of time, and in cases specified by the law.” Judicial warrants are needed in order to enter, search, monitor, private property such as homes as specified in Article 58. However, the constitution continues to permit the trial of civilians under military courts, to the anger of political activists.3
In August 2015, a new antiterrorism law was ratified by the president.4 The bill had been set for changes after criticism from the international community, 5 but was rushed through after the assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat on June 29, 2015.6 The antiterrorism legislation classifies a larger number of crimes as terrorism and provides for the establishment of a “Terrorism Prosecutor’s Office,” which would likely be subject to fewer checks and appeal provisions than normal civilian courts. One provision would allow the police to monitor internet traffic and social media activity to “prevent their use for terrorist purposes.”7 Furthermore, Article 27 calls for a minimum sentence of five years in prison for "setting up a website with the goal of promoting ideas or beliefs inciting to the use of violence, broadcasting information to mislead the police or judicial authorities on terrorism cases, or exchanging messages and issuing orders between terrorist groups or organizations."8 Setting up a group with the intention of “advocating by any means the obstruction of provisions of the constitution or laws” is punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty, a charge that, activists pointed out, could apply to any peaceful political party or advocacy group.9 Finally, journalists face heavy fines for disputing official accounts of attacks by militants.
Previously, President el-Sisi issued a separate law in February 2015 broadening the definition of "terrorist entities" to include anyone who threatens public order "by any means," and allowing the state to draw up lists of alleged terrorists or terrorist organizations.10 The law was met with wide skepticism from legal and rights activists, who criticized that the loose wording of the law could allow the state to consider political parties, student unions, political movements, and human rights organizations as terrorist organizations.11
A new cybercrime law was approved by the Council of Ministers in April 2015, approved by parliament in May 2016 and as of mid-2016 awaited ratification by the president. The harbinger of this law was the 2014 constitution itself, which stated in Article 34 that “The security of cyberspace is an integral part of the economic system and national security. The State shall take the necessary measures to preserve it, as regulated by Law,” which led free speech activists at the time to warn of a potential crackdown on online freedom of expression. The draft law outlined penalties for incitement, terrorism, religious intimidation, and the use of personal photos and videos for blackmail. It also allows law enforcement agencies to submit requests to block websites deemed to threaten national security, a term that has traditionally been used as an excuse to enforce censorship on political opponents, journalists, and activists.12 The law also gives empowers “Security authorities (the Presidency – the armed forces – the ministry of interior – the intelligence services)” to confiscate equipment, censor content, and arrest individuals.13
Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities
Egyptians continue to face stark penalties for their online activities. In previous years, the government had mainly targeted members of organized opposition movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or April 6 Movement. This year authorities went after dancers, comedians, teenagers, and cartoonists with the same prosecutorial zeal.
- In October 2015, a military court sentenced 22-year-old Amr Nohan to three years in prison for several posts on social media, including a picture of President Sisi with “Mickey Mouse ears” added to his head. He was finishing compulsory military duty at the time of his arrest. During the trial, investigators admitted to monitoring and tampering with his Facebook account.14
- In May 2016, the police arrested all six members of the satirical comedy group “The Street Children” and charged them with “inciting people against the authorities, forming a group that stands against state principles, and attempting to topple the regime.” Earlier that month, the group had uploaded two satirical videos that had criticized President Sisi.15 Their arrest was widely condemned by Egyptian media, including some prominent supporters of the president. An online petition was drafted calling for their release. They were detained some 150 days and faced sentences of three to five years in prison for insulting the president.16
Several individuals were jailed for online videos that were deemed to have insulted the honor or image of Egyptian women.
- On September 3, 2015, two belly dancers were each sentenced to six months in prison for “inciting debauchery” through their music videos uploaded to YouTube. Suha Mohammed Ali and Dalia Kamal Youssef, known by their stage names of Shakira and Bardis, were arrested following lawsuits filed against them by lawyers who claimed the two women constituted an “outrage to public morality and harmed the image of Egyptian women.”17
- On March 13, 2016, Taymour el-Sobki, the son of a TV director and the administrator of a misogynist Facebook page, was sentenced to three years for "insulting Egypt's women." He was targeted for stating that "most women are prone to adultery" on a television interview broadcasted in 2015. Although the interview did not spark any outrage at the time, a short clip from the episode went viral on social media and prompted a lawsuit against el-Sobki.18
Egyptians were targeted for addressing religious taboos. For example:
- In February 2016, four teenagers—Moller Yasa, Albir Shehata, and Bassem Younan, and Klenton Faragalla were sentenced to five years in prison for a YouTube video mocking the so-called Islamic State, including a fake execution. All four are Christian and had been accused by neighbors of insulting Islam in their video. They were detained for two months, released on bail, and went into self-imposed exile in Turkey, and later, Switzerland where they were seeking asylum as of September 2016.19 Their teacher, Gad Youssef Younan, was also sentenced to three years.20
- In March 2016, al-Sayed Youssef el-Naggar was arrested for a Facebook post calling for the burning of Islamic jurisprudence books he perceived as supporting extremism. He was arrested in front of al-Azhar mosque, where he had planned to burn the books,21 and sentenced to one year in prison. His appeal case was rejected in September 2016.22
- In January 2016, prominent poet and columnist Fatima Naoot was sentenced to three years in prison for “contempt of religion” for a Facebook post in which she criticized the tradition of slaughtering sheep for the annual religious holiday of Eid El Adha.23 She had originally posted the comment in October 2014 and was on trial for approximately one year. The decision was being appealed by Naoot.24
Authorities used technology to entrap sexual and gender minorities accused of performing illegal acts.
- On April 13, 2016, the “Vice Police” engaged in online conversations with a homosexual man who allegedly offered sex in exchange for money. The man was later arrested for “inciting debauchery.”25
- Similarly, police announced the arrest of a transsexual woman in May 2016 on charges of prostitution. Police reportedly set up a meeting with the accused via Facebook and she was promptly arrested. In national coverage, the accused was called an offensive epithet.26
Several prominent digital activists and online journalists remain in prison on serious charges. In many cases, individuals faced charges unrelated to their online activities, although the intentions of the authorities were clear. For example, Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent blogger and leading figure in the 2011 revolution, was sentenced to five years in prison on February 23, 2015 along with 24 other defendants for a brief protest on November 26, 2013. The demonstrators were taking a stand against newly passed legislation that effectively criminalized any protests without government permission.27 In June 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a legal opinion28 stating that Abdel Fattah was being detained arbitrarily and calling on the Egyptian government to immediately release him.29
Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity
Surveillance and monitoring are a wide concern in the country, given the tense environment in which numerous users have been arrested for their online activities. In July 2015, Italian surveillance software manufacturer Hacking Team was hacked, and a 400 GB trove of company emails and emails was dumped online. The emails confirmed what some experts had already reported,30 namely that Egypt had acquired Hacking Team’s “Remote Control System” (RCS), a spyware technology marketed as “the hacking suite for governmental interception” and can capture data on the target's computer; monitor encrypted internet communications; record Skype calls, emails, messages, and passwords typed into a browser; and remotely turn on a device's webcam and microphone.31 The leak produced invoices showing that the Egyptian Ministry of Defense, and possibly other institutions, paid EUR 737,500 (US$ 845,000) to the company through a third-party intermediary.32 In addition, a February 2016 report by Privacy International concluded that a branch of the Egyptian security apparatus, the “Technical Research Department,” had also purchased surveillance equipment from Nokia Siemens Network (NSN) in the past through various joint ventures and subsidiaries.33
Several regulations on SIM card registration or the use of anonymizers restrict the ability of Egyptians to use the internet anonymously. Mobile phone customers must provide their National ID numbers to their providers.
After some 13 million phone lines had been shut off as part of a campaign to disconnect service from all unregistered SIM cards in 2014 and 2015,34 the NTRA issued a regulation in May 2015 limiting the sale of SIM cards to the official branches of the three mobile operators and imposed even stricter registration requirements35 in a bid to prevent reselling of SIM cards.36 In February, the NTRA announced that it had finalized the draft for a “Unified Contract” for the sale of SIM cards by all three companies, which is yet to be implemented.37
Encryption is also restricted within the country. According to the Egyptian Telecommunications Law, “telecommunication services operators, providers, their employees and users of such services shall not use any Telecommunication Services encryption equipment except after obtaining a written consent from each of the NTRA, the Armed Forces and National Security Entities, and this shall not apply to encryption equipment of radio and television broadcasting.”38
Cooperation between private companies and the government in handing over user data is thought to be extensive. ISPs and mobile operators are obliged to maintain a database of their customers and allow government access to their databases. In the past, details emerged that mobile operators Vodafone, Mobinil, and Etisalat had to sign terms of agreement that bound them to cooperate with government officials when requested to tap any conversation or monitor any discussion. In an interview, Mobinil founder Naguib Sawiris stated that under the company’s terms of agreement, the government had the right to cancel any or all mobile services in the absence of cooperation.39
Intimidation and Violence
Amid sectarian tensions in the country, individuals have been attacked in retribution for Facebook posts deemed to insult religion. The perpetrators of this type of violence are rarely held accountable, with the police or judiciary turning a blind eye and sometimes targeting victims rather than aggressors. For example, in late May 2015, 18 members of 5 Christian families from a village in Upper Egypt were expelled from their homes after one man allegedly published a Facebook post insulting the prophet Mohamed. Groups of villagers gathered outside their houses and demanded they leave the village, all under the approval of security forces. According to the TV presenter who broke the story nationally, the man accused of writing the post is in fact illiterate.40
Students also suffer administrative consequences for their online posts. On March 8, 2016, the University of Mansoura suspended a student and announced it will investigate nine others over Facebook comments criticizing the university and some of its professors. Abdallah Azmy Ismail, an engineering student, was suspended for a full semester for comments made during an online discussion. The school's student union issued a statement condemning the university, pointing out that the school's arbitrary treatment of the students "has reached the point of utilizing personal disagreements between students on social media which would have occurred outside of the university campus to take action against them inside the school.”41
Technical violence is not widespread, with only a few instances of hacking and defacement reported during the past year. On August 14, 2015, during the second anniversary of the dispersal of the pro-Mohamed Morsi sit-in in the squares of al-Nahda and Raba’a al-Adaweya that left at least 817 dead, the website of Cairo Airport was hacked.42 On October 22, the official website of the cabinet, as well as that of the Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC), a government think-tank, were briefly defaced. The attack was claimed by a group called “Anonymous R4bia Team,” in reference to Raba’a al-Adaweya.43 In May 2016, an information sharing service for airlines reported that Egypt had notified airlines of attempts to jam the GPS signal around Cairo airport, possibly by hackers.44
- 1Draft Constitution of The Arab Republic of Egypt, December 2, 2013, Trans. by International IDEA, http://bit.ly/1eLPdiF.
- 2The full text reads, “It is prohibited to censor, confiscate, suspend or shut down Egyptian newspapers and media outlets in any way. Exception may be made for limited censorship in time of war or general mobilization. No custodial sanction shall be imposed for crimes committed by way of publication or the public nature thereof. Punishments for crimes connected with incitement to violence or discrimination amongst citizens, or impugning the honor of individuals are specified by law.” Miriam Rizk and Osman El Sharnoubi, "Egypt's constitution 2013 vs. 2012: A comparison," Ahram Online, December 12, 2013, http://bit.ly/1boZjtj.
- 3"Egypt panel approves 'conditional military trials of civilians'," Ahram Online, November 21, 2013, http://bit.ly/1EY7StE.
- 4“Egypt’s al-Sisi imposes strict anti-terrorism laws,” BBC News, August 17, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-33955894.
- 5José Gonzalez, “Egyptian draft anti-terror laws pose a threat to freedom of expression,” Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, May 5, 2014, https://cjfe.org/resources/features/egyptian-draft-anti-terror-laws-pos…; Erin Cunningham, “Egyptian draft laws to widen ‘terror’ definition drawing fierce criticism,” The Washington Post, April 22, 2014, http://wapo.st/1QAuyBA.
- 6Mai El-Sadany, "Yet Another Terrorism Law," The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, July 6, 2015, http://bit.ly/1KO98Cb.
- 7Al Hussaini,"Egypt's Anti-Terrorism Law to Target Internet.”
- 8Al Hussaini,"Egypt's Anti-Terrorism Law to Target Internet.”
- 9Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, “Egypt's draft anti-terrorism laws constitute greatest threat to civil liberties in 37 years,” IFEX, April 30, 2014, http://bit.ly/1KraMDe.
- 10Sarah El Deeb, "Egyptian president issues new anti-terrorism law," Yahoo News, 24 February 2015, http://yhoo.it/1Kid3k9.
- 11Enas Hammad,"Egypt’s terrorism law whittles down opposition," Al Monitor, March 2, 2015, http://bit.ly/1KlYSig.
- 12Ragab Saad, "Egypt’s Draft Cybercrime Law Undermines Freedom of Expression", Atlantic Council, April 24, 2015, http://bit.ly/1Eofymq; For the full text of the law, see "Al-Watan publishes the text of the draft cybercrime law submitted to the parliament," [in Arabic] Al-Watan, May 11, 2016. http://bit.ly/2dA6svQ.
- 13AFTE, Technical Hostility, June 2016. http://eipr.org/sites/default/files/reports/pdf/cybercrime.pdf.
- 14Imogen Calderwood, “Egyptian law student, 22, jailed for three years after posting image of President Sisi wearing Mickey Mouse ears on Facebook,” The Daily Mail, December 19, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3367182/Egyptian-law-student-22….
- 15"‘Street Children’ band members released," Daily News Egypt, September 7, 2016. www.dailynewsegypt.com/2016/09/07/street-children-band-members-released/.
- 16George Mikhail, “Satire leads Egypt youth troupe to prison,” Al Monitor, May 18, 2016, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/05/egypt-arrest-satire-t….
- 17"Egyptian belly dancers jailed for 'inciting debauchery,” BBC, September 3, 2015. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-34140406.
- 18"Taymour El Sobki sentenced to three years for "insulting Egypt's women," Al Masry al Youm, March 13, 2016, http://today.almasryalyoum.com/article2.aspx?ArticleID=497630&IssueID=3….
- 19Luiz Sanchez, “Coptic teenagers accused of insulting religion seek asylum in Switzerland,” Mada Masr, September 6, 2016, http://www.madamasr.com/en/2016/09/06/feature/politics/coptic-teenagers….
- 20"Egypt sentences 4 Coptic students to 5 years in jail for contempt of Islamic religion," Ahram Online, February 25, 2016. http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/188505/Egypt/Politics-/UPD….
- 21Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, "Renewal of detention of a citizen for calling to burn the Al-Bukhari book," March 7, 2016, http://afteegypt.org/uncategorized/2016/03/07/11905-afteegypt.html.
- 22"Confirmation of the detention of a citizen accused of attempting to burn Al Bukhari's compendium," Cairo Live, September 21, 2016, http://zahma.cairolive.com/?p=59434.
- 23"Egyptian writer Fatima Naoot sentenced to 3 years in jail for ‘contempt of religion’," Ahram Online, January 26, 2016. http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/185963/Egypt/Politics-/Egy….
- 24“Appeal against Fatima Naoot sentence dropped, another appeal to be filed soon,” Mada Masr, March 31, 2016, http://www.madamasr.com/en/2016/03/31/news/u/appeal-against-fatima-naoo….
- 25“Vice police entraps a sexual deviant on the internet” Youm7, April 13, 2016, http://bit.ly/2f0PMez.
- 26“The Arrest of Facebook's most famous shemale in a wig and a dress in Sheikh Zayed,” Youm7, May 2, 2016, http://bit.ly/2eNQg8v.
- 27"Alaa Abdel Fattah: Egypt jails activist-blogger for five years," BBC News, February 23, 2015, http://bbc.in/17MgxiI.
- 28United Nations Human Rights Council, "Opinion No. 6/2016 concerning Alaa Ahmed Seif al Islam Abd El Fattah (Arab Republic of Egypt)", 6 June 2016. www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Detention/Opinions/Session75/Opinion_201….
- 29EFF", Alaa Abd El Fattah Must Be Released, Says UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention," July 5, 2016, https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2016/07/alaa-abd-el-fattah-must-be-releas….
- 30Bill Marczak, et al., “Mapping Hacking Team’s ‘Untraceable’ Software,” Citizen Lab, February 17, 2014, http://bit.ly/1kPDo0Y.
- 31Cora Currier, Morgan Marquis-Boire, "A detailed look at Hacking Team's Emails about its repressive clients," The Intercept, July 7, 2015. https://theintercept.com/2015/07/07/leaked-documents-confirm-hacking-te….
- 32Emir Nader, "Egypt’s purchase of hacking software documented in new leaks," Daily News Egypt, July 6, 2015, http://bit.ly/1J1X35m.
- 33J.M. Porup, "European spy tech sold to ultra-secret branch of Egyptian gov’t, claims new report," Ars Technica, February 25, 2016, http://arstechnica.co.uk/security/2016/02/european-spy-tech-sold-to-sec….
- 34"The NTRA extends the bad on selling mobile lines outside of main stores for two months," Youm7, November 17, 2015, http://bit.ly/2eYL0zC.
- 35"The legislation preventing the sale of mobile lines outside of company branches enters in force tomorrow," Sada El Balad, May 19, 2015, http://www.elbalad.news/1540046.
- 36"The ban on mobile lines sales costs vendors 125 million pounds of losses,” Al Borsa, October 14, 2015, http://bit.ly/1Lv1j2C.
- 37"The NTRA plans on renewing the regulation limiting the sale of mobile lines", Al Mal, February 2, 2015. www.almalnews.com/Pages/StoryDetails.aspx?ID=268557.
- 38Telecommunication Regulation Law No. 10.
- 39Stephanie Baker and Mahmoud Kassem, “Billionaire Facing Death Threats Says Egypt Risks Becoming Iran,” Bloomberg Markets (blog), Bloomberg Business, October 26, 2011, http://bloom.bg/rXPGQE.
- 40"Host: 5 Christian families forced from homes over after member accused of insulting Prophet Mohamed," Egypt Independent, June 1, 2015, http://bit.ly/1FlnhUP.
- 41"School of Engineering of Mansoura suspends a student and investigates nine others for criticizing the school on Facebook," Youm7, March 12, 2016, http://bit.ly/2fwHE9W.
- 42"Cairo airport website hacked as Egyptians mark massacre," Al Jazeera, August 14, 2015, www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/08/cairo-airport-website-hacked-egyptians-m….
- 43"Egypt's official cabinet website hacked," Ahram Online, October 22, 2015, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/161573/Egypt/Politics-/Egy….
- 44India Ashok, "Egypt warns of hackers jamming GPS signals in Cairo airport," International Business Times, May 30, 2016, www.ibtimes.co.uk/egypt-warns-hackers-jamming-gps-signals-cairo-airport….
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Global Freedom Score18 100 not free
Internet Freedom Score26 100 not free