Behind the Western-supported government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s lies a troubling trend threatening free speech in Egypt. CPJ’s latest figures list Egypt as the second highest jailer of journalists, second only to China. According to the organization’s 2015 prison census, 82% of all journalists in prison in Egypt used the Internet as a medium. A recent report [PDF] from the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression found 366 violations of freedom of the press in the latter six months of 2015, 36 of which related to “news networks or websites.”
It’s no surprise then that this troubling trend has reached beyond official journalists, snaring Facebook admins in its wake.
On December 30, Facebook’s Free Basics—a smartphone app that provides users with tariff-free access to Facebook and other services—was shut down in the country, prompting speculation that the move was due to national security concerns. Both Etisalat—Facebook’s telecom partner—and the Ministry of Information claimed that the contract between the social network and the local telecom had simply expired. Buzzfeed quoted an unnamed government official as saying: “Companies don’t know how to do business in Egypt. We kill them with tea and bureaucracy until they go away.” Meanwhile, several human rights activists were also quoted as saying that the government had shut down Free Basics to “punish Facebook.”
According to the Arab Social Media Report, a publication of the Dubai School of Government, Egypt has 14 million Facebook users, which represents 24% of all users in the Arab region.
Although Free Basics has generated controversy elsewhere—particularly in India, which banned the service—for other reasons, the Egyptian government has historically shown little love for the social network. In 2011, amidst the first heady days of the uprising, they blocked Facebook. Numerous individuals have been detained for expressing themselves on the platform, while more recently it was reported that administrators of popular pages were arrested in the runup to January 25th, the fifth anniversary of the uprising that ousted long-time autocrat Mubarak.
Since then, the Sisi government, which came into power after a military takeover of the democratically-elected government of Mohamed Morsi, has escalated its campaign to silence critics. On January 31, Islam Gawish—a cartoonist with 1.6 million Facebook followers—was arrested during a police raid of a newspaper office in Cairo. On February 3, human rights lawyer Gamal Eid was banned from travel. The phenomenon led a New York Times columnist to ask if social media was a destroyer or creator. In the article, Wael Ghonim (the ex-Google employee said to have kickstarted the revolution with a Facebook page) was quoted as saying:
“Five years ago, I said, ‘If you want to liberate society, all you need is the Internet.’ Today I believe if we want to liberate society, we first need to liberate the Internet.”
As Egyptians fight to liberate the Internet at home, Egyptian politics may find a new space in US culture. Bassem Youssef, whose TV show Al Bernameg reached audiences beyond Egypt’s airwaves via YouTube before it was forced off the air, will soon have his own TV program on F-Comedy, a US television network.