Action by states to impose excessive regulations on the use of…the Internet, on the grounds that control, regulation and denial of access are necessary to preserve the moral fabric and cultural identity of societies, is paternalistic. These regulations presume to protect people from themselves and, as such, they are inherently incompatible with the principles of the worth and dignity of each individual. These arguments deny the fundamental wisdom of individuals and societies and ignore the capacity and resilience of citizens, whether on a national, state, municipal, community or even neighborhood level, often to take self-correcting measures to re-establish equilibrium without excessive interference or regulation by the state.
— UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression [1]

Since the emergence of the Internet as a popular medium for communication and expression in Egypt around the turn of the twenty-first century, the Egyptian government, in defiance of UN standards, has been raising the banner of protection of public morality to justify intrusive surveillance of this new technological challenge to its control over Egyptian citizens. The government’s self-proclaimed moral battle with its Internet-using citizens has violated a right to freedom of expression that is not only internationally recognized but is also guaranteed by the Egyptian constitution. [2]

While the Internet first arrived in Egypt in 1993 and was made available to the public in 1995, a significant boost in the number of users came in January 2002, when the government ended the monopoly it had exercised over Internet access through Telecom Egypt and opened up the sector, relieving users of having to pay subscription fees to specified Internet service providers. With the increase in the number of users that followed the liberalization, the local press immediately began beating the drums over the supposed threat posed by the Internet to societal norms and public morals. Official and private publications alike joined forces to demonize the new import, blame the West in advance for damage done to Egypt’s moral purity and to call upon the state to intervene before it was too late. The language was remarkably similar to that used in newspapers shortly after satellite dishes became a common adornment of Egyptian rooftops in the early 1990s.

Even the semi-official al-Ahram, a conservative daily not famous for tabloid-style headlines or sensationalistic coverage, joined the press campaign with gusto. During the spring and summer of 2002, the newspaper published articles on the subjects of “pornographic websites [that are] exploiting our youth’s leisure time,” “a destructive invasion [of the minds of ] the Internet generation,” and “an early warning from experts to parents and officials responsible for blocking harmful websites.” The last article told parents and officials of “a new program makes procedures to block harmful and dangerous sites useless. Beware!” “The Internet is out of control!” concluded a breathless headline in January 2003. The fall of that year saw additional coverage of “cyber-crimes — a threat facing the Egyptian family.”

Obsession with Security

Lending gravitas to the fears of the newspaper editors, the chief justice of the Cairo Criminal Court, Muhammad Fahim Darwish, wrote in al-Ahram on May 31, 2002: “I urge all Internet users to stay away from these [harmful] websites and to monitor youth and children, especially those who frequent cyber-cafés. Parents must also monitor the Internet [use] at home.” Darwish went on to demand that the police “monitor the Internet around the clock” and to urge upon the government an “expedient initiative to bridge the legislative gap in order to cope with the new crimes that stem from the illegitimate use of technology.”

Before the year ended, the state followed the chief justice’s advice to the letter, establishing an Internet monitoring unit inside the police force in September 2002, and introducing a first-ever telecommunications bill to Parliament in November. But while these two steps are considered the most drastic in the state’s brief history of regulating Internet use and content, the government did not seem to share the presumptive concern of Egyptian citizens, as expressed in the press campaign, for the protection of public morality. The declared goal of the two procedures was simply to protect national security. In his first interview after the establishment of the police Internet intelligence unit, [3] the interior minister’s assistant for information and documentation told al-Ahram that “the main and higher goal for the establishment [of the unit] is to document all forms of breaches of legality that might harm national security or the security of individuals through the use of computers in Egypt.” [4]

Similarly, the telecommunications bill proposed to Parliament by the office of President Husni Mubarak included a section entitled “Telecommunications and National Security,” but did not mention public morality or public order. This is not to say, of course, that regulation of morality in cyberspace was absent from the official agenda. The Internet’s negative impact on public order and morality was often raised by security and state officials alike. Still, the official view of the Internet was, above all else, part and parcel of the Egyptian regime’s permanent obsession with national security.

Online “Crime Scene”

Yet it is the vice department [5] of the Interior Ministry that has seen in the Internet a new “crime scene,” and has since early 2001 devoted a considerable amount of time and energy to find, and in some cases provoke, alleged crimes committed online. The role of the vice department became ever more prominent after the arrest of webmaster Shuhdi Surour and the dozens of entrapments of men visiting gay or gay-oriented websites, making the vice police the perpetrator of most serious violations of Internet liberties in Egypt. Surour was arrested by a group of vice squad officers at his home on November 22, 2001. He was charged with posting on his website a poem his late father, the renowned poet Naguib Surour, had written over 30 years earlier. The poem, known as the Kuss Ummiyyat, uses explicit sexual language to lambaste the corruption of Nasser’s regime, which Sorour implies had led to Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war. [6] Shuhdi Surour was sentenced on June 30, 2002 to one year of imprisonment under Article 178 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes the possession of “immoral material” for the purpose of sale or distribution and with the intention of corrupting morals. [7]

The language of Sorour’s arrest report offers a crystalline expression of the way that vice police officers have come to view the Internet. The arresting officer noted that “some have resorted to the use of modern scientific techniques to practice their illegal activities that breach public morality….thinking that they are far from the reach of the law.” He then reiterated
his department’s responsibility to intervene in Sorour’s Internet posting practices for the “protection of society’s norms and to save the reputation of the country, since such criminal deeds as posting scandalous material could have a negative impact domestically and abroad.” [8]

Surour’s case exemplifies the changing nature of the challenges faced by the Egyptian state in its efforts to suppress intolerable political criticism. While they have never been printed, the Kuss Ummiyyat have been smuggled among literary circles since 1974. The limited circulation of the poems continued long after the elder Sorour’s death in 1978. The state never charged the poet with any kind of crime for writing the verses nor did it arrest anyone else for possessing the poem, perhaps because authorities realized that the poem’s audience would never exceed a certain limit. Then in 2001 the verses were posted on a website and became accessible to every Internet user. It is worth noting that the poem has been available on the same site since 1998; the vice police only decided to take action after the Internet appeared on the radar of the security apparatus in the country.

The police officer who arrested Shuhdi Surour was not merely offended by the language of the poem. He wrote in his report that the poem “harmed the country’s reputation and constituted libel and slander against some public personalities.” [9] But it was the sexual language of the Kuss Ummiyyat that provided a pretext for the prosecution to try the case and secure a conviction, relying on the moral panic that surrounds the Internet and the court’s scant familiarity with how the network actually works. The moral panic, for instance, blinded the court to the prosecution’s difficulties in proving liability, given that the website was based in the United States.

Entrapment

While Shuhdi Surour never served his sentence, [10] the vice police have won. The successful prosecution sent the message that Egyptians are mistaken to think that once they are online, “they are far from the reach of the law.” Even in cyberspace, public morality is being observed and protected, even if the “crime” is projected into the ether from another continent. Around the same time that Surour was arrested, vice detectives in Cairo were also paying close attention to Egyptians who frequented gay or gay-friendly websites and chatrooms. Vice officers or informers working for them started logging on to those sites, pretending to be gay, and made appointments with individuals, who were then arrested while they waited for their “dates” to show up. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has documented more than 40 such police entrapments since the end of 2003. [11] All of these men were arrested while simply standing in the street. Despite the absence of any evidence of homosexual leanings or activity, most of them were subjected to beatings and humiliation while in detention to coerce them into “confessing” to their homosexuality.

The conduct of the vice police clearly shows that their prejudice against homosexuality is the main trigger for this campaign of entrapment. One personals website used by police to entrap alleged homosexuals contains no less than 32,000 listings from Egypt. The number of listings for “men seeking men” on this site is below 700, 2 percent of the total. Yet it is this 2 percent that has been targeted by the vice police. While illicit heterosexual sexual encounters arranged online may be overlooked by the Interior Ministry’s guardians of morality, “sexual perverts” are denied the same latitude. To understand this discrepancy, one should take into account the press campaign that accompanied the infamous “Queen Boat” trial of 52 men arrested for alleged homosexuality. [12] Newspaper articles included fabricated stories about the defendants’ links to foreign organizations and their use of the Internet to exchange “teachings.” The press campaign produced an atmosphere of homophobia and led many ordinary citizens to believe that all homosexuals are official members of one big international network. Therefore, the vice police’s assault on private sexual practice is to a large extent another manifestation of the obsession with national security and the state’s desperate endeavors to “save the reputation of the country.” [13]

In all these cases, the exchanges of e-mails or the texts of chatroom conversations have been presented to the courts as evidence. Most of the defendants have been acquitted by appeals courts, simply because they have denied being homosexuals and the prosecution has failed to prove that they are. But the court always overlooks the more striking legal fact that it is illegitimate for the police to be involved in entrapment schemes. Again, the moral apprehension that has resulted from the demonization of the Internet and the fact that most judges are ignorant of basic concepts about the information super-highway allow police officers and prosecutors to violate the law and get away with it.

Indisputably Illegal

On a regional level, the crackdown on Internet liberties in the name of protecting morality has recently been institutionalized by the Arab League. In January 2004, the League’s Council of Arab Interior Ministers approved a “model bill” on cyber-crime that will be available for cribbing by any Arab state that wants to regulate its cyberspace. The bill, prepared by a joint committee of representatives of Arab ministries of justice and interior, stipulates penalties of imprisonment for using the Internet to produce, send or store any material that violates public order or public morality (Article 13). Imprisonment is also the punishment for anyone who uses the Internet to assault a “religious or family principle” (Article 16). The bill, moreover, states that its rulings apply even if the “crime” is committed outside the country (Article 26).

In the view of international human rights law, there is no question that censoring or punishing peaceful speech on the Internet violates the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed both by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a state party. Article 19 of the ICCPR guarantees the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression has emphasized that “online expression should be guided by international standards and be guaranteed the same protection as is awarded to other forms of expression.” [14] He also stated that Article 19 implies that every communicable type of idea, information, opinion, news, advertising, art or critical political commentary falls within the category of protected speech. [15]

Finally, while Article 19 allows states to impose certain restrictions on freedom of expression to protect public morality, the Special Rapporteur has set the boundaries for such limitations in no ambiguous terms: “The Special Rapporteur would like to note…that restrictions applied on the freedom of expression should not be applied in such a manner as to promote prejudice and intolerance. He furthermore recognizes the importance to protect the freedom of expression of minority views including those views that might be offensive or disturbing to a majority.” [16] Egyptian human rights activists have an indisputably sound legal basis for demanding that the regime halt its harassment, entrapment and arbitrary detention of Egyptian citizens based on their alleged private consensual non-commercial homosexual conduct — whether said conduct offends the sensibilities of the Cairo vice squad or not.

The ongoing trial of anti-war activist Ashraf Ibrahim by an Emergency State Security Court on charges including “use of the Internet to communicate false information about alleged human rights violations in the country” [17] should send a strong signal to political and rights activists in Egypt that allowing an oppressive regime to crack down on private life in the name of protecting public morality ultimately must have a domino effect on other aspects of public life and activism. It is only by standing up against any sanctioning of online peaceful expression that at least this one medium of expression and communication may stay outside the realm of comprehensive state control.

Endnotes

[1] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right of Freedom of Opinion and Expression to the UN Commission on Human Rights (1998), UN E/CN.4/1998/40.
[2] Article 47 of the Egyptian Constitution guarantees to every citizen “the right to express his opinion and to publicize it verbally or in writing or by photography or by other means,” albeit “within the limits of the law.”
[3] The official name of the unit is the Intelligence Administration for Crimes of Computer and Information Networks.
[4] Al-Ahram, September 29, 2002.
[5] The official name of the vice department is the General Administration for the Protection of Public Morality.
[6] Sorour’s poem belongs to a genre of Arabic poetry known as hija’ in which the poet hurls invective. The title plays on a vulgar colloquial insult, which, literally translated, refers to one’s mother’s genitalia, and figuratively means something like “Fuck you!” The full text was reposted on the website of Index on Censorship at http://www.indexonline. org/news/20020718_surur.shtml.
[7] See the joint press release of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, August 25, 2002, Cairo.
[8] Arrest report filed by ‘Adil ‘Abd al-‘Aziz of the General Administration for the Protection of Public Morality (Cairo), November 22, 2001, p. 1. Case 14121/2001 (Misdemeanors, al-Sayyida Zaynab).
[9] Ibid.
[10] Surour was released on bail during his trial, and after his conviction, he left Egypt for Russia. The Court of Appeals never considered his case due to his absence.
[11] This number by no means represents the actual number of entrapments, and is very likely the tip of the iceberg.
[12] See Hossam Bahgat, “Explaining Egypt’s Targeting of Gays,” Middle East Report Online, July 23, 2001. http://www. merip.org/mero/mero072301.html.
[13] The same ‘Adil ‘Abd al-‘Aziz who arrested Shuhdi Surour was behind a large number of Internet entrapments of homosexuals. His language about the Internet and preserving the country’s reputation recurs in most of his arrest reports.
[14] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right of Freedom of Opinion and Expression to the UN Commission on Human Rights (1998), UN E/CN.4/1998/40.
[15] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right of Freedom of Opinion and Expression to the UN Commission on Human Rights (1995), UN E/CN.4/1995/32.
[16] Ibid.
[17] See Amnesty International’s press release on Ashraf Ibrahim at http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ ENGMDE120402003?open&of=ENG-EGY and Human Rights Watch’s release at http://hrw.org/press/2003/12/ egypt120503.htm.

How to cite this article:

Hossam Bahgat "Egypt’s Virtual Protection of Morality," Middle East Report 230 ( ).
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