Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Egypt’s first democratically-elected civilian president, Mohammed Morsi, died on June 17, 2019, while appearing in court in Cairo. When the news of his death broke across the country, however, there were almost no references to his prior role as head of state. Instead, the same 42-word report kept appearing on print media, television and radio:

Mohammed Morsi died yesterday during his trial in an espionage case. The deceased asked the judge to speak and the court gave him permission. After the court was adjourned, he fainted and died. The body was transferred to hospital and the necessary procedures are under way.

Just six years after he was ousted from government in a bloody coup by the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Morsi’s legacy had already been reduced to nothing more than these brief words. Predictably, allegations that the report had come directly from the government quickly began to circulate.

Such allegations were seemingly confirmed by one particularly bizarre event the following day. Nosha Darwish was reporting on the event during a live broadcast on Extra News TV when, after reading the report from the teleprompter, she ended by reading out loud: “Sent from a Samsung Device.”

Word of this unusual send off quickly spread on social media and, for many, highlighted the state’s near-total control of traditional media outlets. According to Hussein Baoumi, Amnesty International’s Egypt researcher, it merely confirmed what has been known for a long time: “Security agencies send messages or emails to the TV channels, giving them a script on how to cover a particular news item or specific issue.”

There is a high price for speaking out against the Egyptian regime. In fact, as Wael Eskandar makes clear, since President Sisi assumed power in 2013, the country has been forced into an “unprecedented state of repression.” The regime has cracked down on press freedoms, arrested thousands of dissidents and even once loyal supporters and forcibly disappeared many who challenge state power. The government has dramatically tightened its control over media outlets, even to the extent of writing the copy of reports that can be aired, which illustrates the extent to which Sisi’s regime is intent on closing down spaces of potential independence or dissent.

Yet when traditional media fails to offer anything other than a state-sanctioned view of events, people often turn to alternative sources to find out about the world around them. Inevitably, this often means going online. It is, after all, a space that is harder to govern than traditional media, making it a vital tool for voicing dissent since at least the 2011 uprising. Unsurprisingly, this possibility has made the digital realm a major target of Egyptian government interference over the last five years.

Since the establishment of the High Council for Cyber Security in December 2014, the regime has acquired increasingly sophisticated technological capabilities, used unprecedented measures to block internet activity, passed restrictive internet legislation and now surveils users and censors content on a scale never seen before. Much of this has been facilitated by Western companies, states and regional allies who have been more than happy to sell potentially repressive technologies to the authoritarian regime, emboldening Sisi’s attempts to eliminate freedom of expression in Egypt. As the regime continues in its “fight against existing and potential spaces where dissent might be possible,” the digital realm has become an increasingly important space for both dissent and its subsequent arrest.

 

From Mass Blocking to Targeted Attacks

2019 has been an important year for the Sisi regime’s quest to further entrench its hold on power. The most significant moment came on April 16, when parliament approved constitutional amendments that, if approved by the public, would extend his rule until 2030 and effectively “place the military above the law,” according to Said Benarbia, the MENA Director for the International Commission of Jurists.

The day after parliament had voted in favor of the amendments, the National Election Authority announced a public referendum to allow the public to vote on the suggested changes. The build-up to the referendum—which was held between April 19-22—was dominated by state-sponsored surveillance, censorship and a further crackdown on press freedoms which foreclosed any chance for an open, democratic vote.

On April 9, for example, the regime blocked access to an independent campaign website called “Batel,” which can be translated as “null” in Arabic. The website invited Egyptians to register their intent on voting down the proposed amendments. Just a few hours after it was launched, however, it was blocked by the authorities. Despite this, reports suggest that it had already gained 60,000 signatories by the time it was blocked.

In response, activists set up several mirror pages but on Sunday April 14, these were also blocked according to the independent international censorship watchdog, Netblocks. In their attempts to block the specific website, the regime also inadvertently blocked an additional 34,000 websites which were all hosted on a shared IP address owned by Netlify, a domain-hosting provider.

Despite this blatant attempt to prevent freedom of opinion and expression, the Batel campaign continued to amass signatures. Predominantly, this is because citizens were able to bypass the blocks with use of Virtual Private Networks, although the use of such circumvention tools is not without its risks from the state.

Ultimately, however, the regime claimed 88.8 percent of voters had voted in favor of the proposed changes, although the results remain marred by allegations of vote-buying. Additionally, turnout was just 44 percent, which is perhaps indicative of the fact that for many, the results were, from the outset, a forgone conclusion.

Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “The decision to put these amendments to the constitution to a public referendum, amid the worst crackdown on freedom of expression and severe restrictions on political parties and independent media, demonstrates the Egyptian government’s contempt for the rights of all people in Egypt.”

The blanket ban, which inadvertently affected thousands of URLs, also demonstrates the regime’s willingness to stifle freedom of expression by any means necessary, even if it affects a disproportionately large part of the network. Earlier in the year, the regime also carried out more targeted and sophisticated attacks on specific individuals.

In March 2019, for example, Amnesty International uncovered evidence of government-backed bodies launching a sustained campaign of phishing attacks on civil society organizations, human rights defenders and digital media outlets. It followed a similar phishing attack wave that was uncovered by Citizen Lab in 2017, dubbed Nile Phish.

The 2019 attacks are thought to have affected several hundreds of people during the early, politically sensitive months of the year. The specific type of attack, known as OAuth Phishing, is a simple but convincing attack that relies on the creation of malicious third-party applications which can gain direct access to an account.

In this instance, the third-party application was called “Secure Email” and masqueraded itself as a legitimate security update for a user’s Google account. However, upon downloading the app and accepting its permissions, the app would have access to all the user’s emails, effectively enabling the state to spy on all the outgoing and incoming communications of their target.

Conclusively attributing such phishing attacks is no easy feat. However, given the timing and victims chosen, the attacks were evidently politically, rather than financially, motivated. Further, Amnesty stated that many of those affected had received a genuine alert from Google stating that “government-backed attackers are trying to steal your password.”

These examples highlight just two of the different strategies that Sisi’s regime has deployed in the past six months to control public opinion, silence critics and promote an environment of self-censorship among the population. Together, they demonstrate the regime’s interest in and capability for blocking content and attacking users that threaten their power, regardless of the wider ramifications.

 

Legislative Authority and State Impunity

Much of this surge in state activity in the digital realm has been enabled by relatively new legislation that has further cemented the regime’s right to intervene in the digital realm. On August 18, 2018, the Egyptian Parliament ratified a new law, entitled The Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes Law. Ostensibly, it was designed to help the regime combat extremist and terrorist content online. In practice, however, it has been used as a means of legitimizing the sort of widespread content takedowns which have been commonplace since 2017.

The law permits blocking content which is seen to be “a threat to national security” or the “national economy.” Such terms, however, are vaguely defined with national security being considered “all that is related to the independence, stability, and security of the homeland and its unity and territorial integrity.” Such vague terms have, undoubtedly, encouraged and enabled Sisi’s mass censorship apparatus.

The law has legitimized the blocking of at least 500 websites since 2017. Additionally, those who are found to be accessing them via circumvention technology can face huge fines and penalties. Of particular significance is Article 7, which provides the state with the authority to block a website whenever it is deemed to be a threat to security or the economy. In addition, the law has enabled the creation of a comprehensive surveillance system that permits the state to request users’ data from ISPs whenever it deems it necessary. Unsurprisingly, it is those with critical views of the government that have been targeted.

In their study on the nature of censorship in Egypt in 2018, the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) found that the most blocked websites were media outlets, followed by circumvention tools and human rights organizations. It concluded that “internet censorship in Egypt appears to have become more dynamic, sophisticated and pervasive”—a trend that has only continued since the report was published.

Just weeks prior the 2018 anti-cyber legislation, Egypt’s parliament also passed a law that classified blogs and social media accounts with over 5,000 followers as media outlets; effectively placing them under the same level of scrutiny and equally vulnerable to blocking, charges and imprisonment for publishing mis/disinformation or “incitement to break the law.”

The regime’s approach to digital censorship also has significant geopolitical objectives and ramifications. As Helmi Noman found, Egypt regularly blocks digital content emanating from Iran, Qatar and all Muslim Brotherhood affiliated websites. Noman notes that “state-to-state geopolitical internet filtering is becoming the norm in the region.” While this far from surprising in a state clearly willing to block anything that contradicts its official narrative, it does show that the censorship apparatus does not merely look inward, but also outward at content that it considers to have the potential to be destabilizing.

 

Foreign Technologies, Domestic Impact

Although the majority of the recent technological advancements have impacted the domestic population within Egypt, much of the actual technology used has been sourced from overseas. Despite its flagrant human rights abuses, Sisi’s regime has benefited from a close relationship with numerous European states since taking power in 2013. In many ways, these democratic states have facilitated—and are thereby complicit in—the increasingly sophisticated censorship apparatus.

France, in particular, has provided a number of new technologies, ranging from individual surveillance to personal data collection to crowd control technologies. As a report by the International Federation of Human Rights has shown, France and several France-based companies have participated “in the construction of a widespread surveillance and crowd control architecture aimed at preventing all dissent and social movement.”

Additionally, companies based in Israel, Italy, UK and UAE have all supplied new technologies that have emboldened Sisi’s attempts to curtail freedom of expression in Egypt. Selling potentially repressive technologies to authoritarian regimes is not new. In fact, globally, democratic states are some of the largest exporters of technology which, in the hands of dictators, can enable them to maintain control and further oppress their citizens.

Recent reports have also uncovered companies based in China providing state-of-the-art surveillance technologies to authoritarian regimes across Africa and the broader Middle East region. Semptian—which has ties to IBM, Google and US company Xilinx – is one such example. According to a new report by The Intercept, an employee at Semptian had told them that several of their law enforcement products had been distributed in the region.

Egypt has, for a long time, had strategic importance for powers looking for an ally in the region, making it a particularly attractive trade partner. That such deals are often opaque, however, leaves citizens in both countries with very few avenues to push for accountability and transparency. One of the best examples of such opacity can be seen by the leaked commercial offer from 2010 from a UK-based company, Gamma, which details the proposed sale of FinSpy, a type of spyware, to the Egyptian government.

 

The Fight for Digital Freedom

Modern authoritarian regimes are increasingly reliant upon technologies to oppress, control and silence their civilian populations. While mass arrests, forced disappearances and human rights abuses are largely played out in the physical world, we must be mindful of how these actions also mirror, are encouraged by and interact with the digital world. Doing so allows us to view the scope of an authoritarian regime’s efforts to repress its citizenry and provides a new avenue for considering who is also complicit in such actions.

As foreign companies and governments appear happy to continue providing potentially oppressive technologies to autocratic states, there is a risk that more regimes will follow Egypt’s lead and construct similarly sophisticated systems of control. This is a trend that has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding such transactions.

This is not to suggest, however, that the battle has been lost. As Egypt’s surveillance technology and censorship apparatus grows in sophistication, so too do the circumvention methods and digital privacy tools being developed around the world. As with the arrest of the physical world, the digital realm will be remain a contested space.

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