We are quickly approaching the tenth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, a powerfully hopeful time in history when—despite all odds—Egyptians rose up against an entrenched dictatorship and shook it from power, with the assistance of new technologies. Though the role of social media has been hotly debated and often overplayed, technology most certainly played a role in organizing and Egyptian activists demonstrated the potential of social media for organizing and disseminating key information globally. 

2011 was a hopeful time, but hope quickly gave way to repression—repression that has increased significantly this year, especially in recent months as the Egyptian government, under President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, has systematically persecuted human rights defenders and other members of civil society. In the hands of the state, technology was and still is used to censor and surveil citizens.

In 2013, Sisi’s government passed a law criminalizing unlicensed street demonstrations; that law has since been frequently used to criminalize online speech by activists. Two years later, the government adopted a sweeping counterterrorism law that has since been updated to allow for even greater repression. The new provisions of the law were criticized in April by UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter terrorism, Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin, who stated that they would “profoundly impinge on a range of fundamental human rights”. 

But it is the government’s enactment of Law 180 of 2018 Regulating the Press and Media that has had perhaps the most widespread recent impact on free expression online. The law stipulates that press institutions, media outlets, and news websites must not broadcast or publish any information that violates Constitutional principles, granting authorities to ban or suspend distribution or operations of any publications, media outlets, or even social media accounts (with more than 5,000 followers) that are deemed to threaten national security, disturb the public peace, or promote discrimination, violence, racism, hatred, or intolerance. Additionally, Law No. 175 of 2018 on Anti-Cybercrime grants authorities the power to block or suspend websites deemed threatening to national security or the national economy.

A new escalation

In the past two weeks, Egyptian authorities have escalated their crackdown on human rights defenders and civil society organizations. On November 15, Mohammed Basheer, a staffer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) was arrested at his Cairo home in the early morning hours. Three days later, the organization’s criminal justice unit director, Karim Ennarah, was arrested while on vacation in Dahab. Most recently, Executive Director Gasser Abdel-Razek was arrested at his home by security forces.

All three appeared in front of the Supreme State Security Prosecution and were charged with “joining a terrorist group,” “spreading false news,” and “misusing social media.” They were remanded into custody and sent to fifteen days of pre-trial detention—a tactic commonly used by the Egyptian state as a form of punishment.

In the same week, Egyptian authorities placed 30 individuals on a terrorism watch list, accusing them of joining the Muslim Brotherhood. Among them is blogger, technologist, activist, and friend of EFF, Alaa Abd El Fattah.

A blogger and free software developer, Alaa has the distinction of having been detained under every head of state during his lifetime. In March 2019, he was released after serving a five-year sentence for his role in the peaceful demonstrations of 2011. As part of his parole, he was meant to spend every night at a police station for five years.

But in September of last year, he was re-arrested over allegations of publishing false news and inciting people to protest. He has been held without trial ever since, and as of this week is marked as a terrorist by the Egyptian state.

This designation lays bare the dangers of entrusting individual states with the ability to define “terrorism” for the global internet. While Egypt has used this designation to attack human rights defenders, the country is not alone in politicizing the definition. And at a time when governments are banding together to “eliminate terrorist and extremist content online” through efforts like the Christchurch Call (of which we are a member of the advisory network), it is imperative that social media companies, civil society, and states alike exercise great care in defining what qualifies as “terrorism.” We must not simply trust individual governments’ definitions.

A call for solidarity

EFF condemns the recent actions by the Egyptian government and stands in solidarity with our colleagues at EIPR and the many activists and human rights defenders imprisoned by the Sisi government. And we urge other governments and the incoming Biden administration to stand against repression and hold Egypt’s government accountable for their actions.

As the great Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”