Egyptian authorities try to rein in cyberspace activism

Sunday 01/05/2016
A young Egyptian logs onto Facebook at an internet café in Cairo.

Cairo - Aproposed social media law would likely restrict cyberspace activism, increase alienation of young people in Egypt and further erode the support for Egyptian leaders, observers say.

“It’s totally illogical for anybody to try to control social media now,” rights activist Nehad Abul Komsan said. “Such a law shows the enor­mity of fear inside government cor­ridors from public views expressed on social networking sites.”

The measure, expected to soon be presented to parliament for de­bate, would mandate prison terms for people who spread false news reports, offend public figures, en­courage terrorism or fan sectarian­ism.

The exact wording of the law has not been made public but informa­tion leaked to the media indicates the measure orders internet provid­ers to ask users to provide national identification card numbers when creating Facebook pages or Twit­ter accounts. Security experts say the data would enable authorities to track down people who violate the law.

Parliament, most members of which back President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, seeks to control social me­dia because Egyptian officials fear free speech and have an instinctive penchant for reining in expression, rights advocates say.

Sisi, in a recent meeting with par­liament members and media repre­sentatives, referred to cyberspace activists who spread falsified news about his government and negate its achievements.

“If I address you through social media, you don’t see me or know which agency I work for,” Sisi said. “There are fourth- and fifth-gener­ation wars. There are cyberspace brigades that work day and night. Egyptians do not feel the effect of the work we do because of the negative work being done [by cy­berspace activists].”

The desire to rein in social me­dia will land Sisi and parliament in trouble, advocates like Abul Komsan say.

Social networking was at the fore­front of the revolution against auto­crat Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and Is­lamist president Muhammad Morsi in 2013. The revolutions started as social media uprisings.

Social media were used recently by Sisi’s opponents to report police brutality and administrative cor­ruption throughout Egypt. They were used by a militant group in the Sinai peninsula to publish photos of Egyptian troops killed and equip­ment seized during attacks on Sinai army posts.

There were 48.3 million internet users in Egypt in 2015, according to Internet World Stats, an inter­national site focused on internet statistics worldwide. Some 27 mil­lion of the users had Facebook ac­counts.

The internet is increasingly seen as a “security threat” in Egypt, Freedom House said in a 2015 re­port about internet freedom in the country. The organisation listed a number of journalists and cyber­space activists who were jailed for expressing their views on social networks.

With the proposed law, observ­ers said, the number of people imprisoned on charges of commit­ting social media crimes would rise dramatically. The law is so broadly worded that they could apply to al­most any Facebook or Twitter post­ing.

“The government shudders at what the public writes on social media,” said Amir Salim, a lawyer involved in defending opposition activists, “but it should realise that we are already past the time of in­ternet control.”

Activists said that, by seeking to control social media, Sisi and his government pit themselves against young people, who have been large­ly alienated since the anti-Mubarak uprising, even though they were the main forces behind the revolu­tion.

Sisi has been trying to placate younger citizens, creating leader­ship and financial aid programmes. However, most of the initiatives have failed to convince many young people to get politically involved. This was clear in the 2015 parlia­mentary elections and the 2014 election that made Sisi president.

Nevertheless, some people say social media should not be left without control while Egypt is fighting terrorism.

Shadia Thabet, a member of the Egyptian parliament, said false news spread through social media could cause Egypt’s “destruction”.

“Social networking sites have turned into a tool for spreading fal­sified news,” Thabet said. “It has even become more influential than the traditional media, which is why it is important for us to take steps to protect our country against the negative effects of misusing this so­cial media.”