How “national security” rhetoric and laws are being used to shut down Egypt’s civic space

I originally wrote this report for IFEX and it was published on December 15th, 2018. I’m republishing it here for archival purposes. .

I also conducted an associated interview with Amira Abdelhamid from Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE). .

“In this piece IFEX examines how the Egyptian government has been manipulating fears over national security as part of its widespread crackdown on activists, lawyers and journalists. We have also published, as a companion piece, a Q&A on this topic with Amira Abdelhamid, International Advocacy Officer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).”

On 22 May 2018, Egyptian authorities arrested Wael Abbas, a prominent journalist and blogger who had been documenting police abuse and government corruption for over a decade. Police raided his home at dawn, seized his computer and mobile phones, blindfolded him, and took him to an unknown location.

He was indicted in case 441 of 2018 and the government claimed that he is part of “the media wing of the Muslim Brotherhood”. He was released on 11 December. In the weeks preceding his arrest, several journalists and activists were arrested as part of this case, including well-known critics of the Muslim Brotherhood such as Adel Sabry, chief editor of independent website Masr Al-Arabiya.

Amal Fathy, Egyptian activist and member of the April 6 Youth Movement, was also arrested in May of 2018. Fathy’s ‘crime’ was speaking out against sexual harassment in Cairo. According to Amira Abdelhamid, International Advocacy Officer at the Egypt-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), she was sentenced to two years in prison for posting a video on her Facebook account “criticising the government’s inaction on the epidemic of sexual harassment in Egypt”. The fact that Fathy’s husband, Mohamed Lotfy, is the director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) has undoubtedly increased her profile and may have been a factor in her treatment.

Rather than targeting those who harassed Fathy after her post, the Egyptian government accused her of “joining a terrorist group, using a website with the purpose of promoting ideas and beliefs advocating the commission of terrorist acts, intentionally disseminating false news and rumors likely to disturb public security, and harming the public interest”. This was reported in a statement signed by many NGOs including IFEX members AFTE, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). On 25 November she was charged with disseminating false news. Other charges of ‘terrorism’ remain pending. At the time of writing, Fathy’s trial was adjourned to 30 December.

It has become the norm in Egypt for journalists, activists, and even their family members to be treated this way. The situation escalated further after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was ‘re-elected’, virtually unopposed, in March of 2018, to four more years in power – with the not unlikely possibility that he will amend the constitution to allow himself to rule for even longer.

In typical ‘strongman’ fashion, el-Sisi and the Egyptian government have found that the rhetoric of national security gives them more elbow room to crush dissent. To charge someone with anything from spreading ‘false news’, to joining a ‘terrorist group’ or even using social networking websites to promote ‘terrorist ideas’ – all often synonymous with whatever sort of expression is critical of the government’s policies. All that’s needed is a subservient and weakened judicial system, backed by a government-controlled media.

As AFTE explains in their second quarterly report, covering April-June 2018, lately the crackdown on critical expression is being achieved through legislation. In addition to the 2018 cybercrime law, there is the law regulating the press and media and the Supreme Council Media Regulation, No. 180, the law of the National Press Authority, No. 179, and the law of the National Information Authority, No. 178.

AFTE expects that these laws will severely affect freedom of information and digital rights.

To understand how the government uses these laws, consider how they have been impacting internet users. Abdelhamid told IFEX how the Egyptian government has been using legal justification to ban websites.

The cybercrime law was proposed by the government and approved by the House of Representatives on 5 June 2018 – approved by el-Sisi on 18 August. Under article 7 of this law, the government can legally block access to any website it deems “a threat to national security” or to “the national economy”. The police may also request the blocking of websites from the National Telecom Regulatory Authority (NTRA), according to Abdelhamid.

AFTE’s report concludes that the Egyptian government fears the internet as “the last space used by its critics to disseminate their views and circulate information on developments in domestic politics in Egypt.”

The Egyptian government banned at least 496 websites between May 2017 and February 2018, with some sites banned since 2015. These include popular independent sites like those of Egyptian online newspaper Mada Masr and those of IFEX members ANHRI, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The government has also banned sites that can help circumvent censorship, such as VPN sites, Tor network service, and Accelerated Mobil Pages (AMP). To help those affected, AFTE published a report with tactics to bypass the blocking, but this is becoming increasingly difficult.

In many ways, the cybercrime law simply legalised what was already being done. The Egyptian government was already banning websites that, in one way or another, criticised its practices and policies.

But banning websites and intimidating and/or arresting activists aren’t the only methods used by the Egyptian government to close the space for civil society. The “NGO Foreign Funding Case”, or Case 173, which dates back to 2011, has imposed severe limitations on the work of NGOs operating in Egypt.

This culminated in June 2013 with a Cairo criminal court sentencing 43 foreign and Egyptian employees of international organisations to prison sentences ranging between one and five years. In the name of ‘national security’, the Egyptian government accused several prominent activists and lawyers of illegally receiving foreign funds. This led, for example, to Gamal Eid – who is the Director of IFEX member ANHRI and also the lawyer of activists like Wael Abbas – having his assets frozen in September of 2017, an act described by ANRHI as an “unjust political ruling under the guise of a legal verdict”. Eid was among four accused of illegally receiving USD 1.5 million in foreign funding.

Rawda Ahmed, a lawyer and human rights defender with ANHRI, told IFEX about her experience as part of Case 173. She was initially summoned for questioning on 26 May 2016 and then issued a summons on 7 May 2018. She was released on a bail of LE 20,000 (around USD$1,117) on 7 June 2018, pending investigations into charges of tax evasion. Two ANHRI lawyers, Karim Abdel Rady and Nour Fahmy, were also interrogated in July 2016, but not charged.

Eid has also been banned from traveling, another practice being routinely applied under Case 173 to human rights defenders in Egypt. Those affected by travel bans include: Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights; Mohamed Zarea of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies; Hoda Abdelwahab of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession; Mozn Hassan of Nazra for Feminist Studies; Nasser Amin of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession; Reda Eldanbouki of the Women’s Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness; Esraa Abdelfattah of the Egyptian Democracy Academy; and Hossam el-Din Ali, Ahmed Ghoneim and Bassem Samir of the Egyptian Democratic Academy.

At least 500 citizens, mostly activists, lawyers and reporters, have been reported banned from traveling since El-Sisi’s rise to power in 2013. Often, they weren’t even informed of their travel bans before trying to travel, or learned of them when they were reported in the media. Others were banned from traveling without Case 173 being directly invoked.

The law that this case made use of was approved by el-Sisi in May of 2017, despite opposition by six political parties and 22 civil society organisations. It is almost identical to a previous law passed in November of 2016 but which, according to HRW, was shelved after widespread international criticism. It sets very difficult preconditions on Egyptian NGOs and media organisations’ finances, making it de-facto impossible for many, if not most, to operate in the country. Failure to meet these conditions can lead to heavy fines and prison sentences of between one and five years for individual staff.

As is so often the case, the Egyptian government has invoked national security rhetoric as its justification. In many instances, as in the case of Mada Masr, no legal justification is provided to explain the blocking of websites, assets being frozen, or other measures, leaving organisations in a sort of legal limbo.

The cumulative effect can not be overestimated. “Time and time again, the government has used the rhetoric of national security, facilitated by the state of emergency declared in April 2017, to shut down public spaces. The chilling effect has been substantial.” In effect, Abdelhamid says, these laws have led many Egyptians, whether activists or not, to “self-censor their online expression”.

It all contributes to a climate of uncertainty which Mohamed Zarea, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) has referred to as a “sword over our necks”. The fate of democratic institutions protecting freedom of expression in Egypt is in jeopardy. Those remaining NGOs that still manage to operate – to various extents – have therefore been focusing their efforts on combating these laws. After all, it is not simply out of a sense of duty; for Egypt’s civil society, it is a matter of survival.