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HRW report, about blocking Muslim Brotherhood’s sites
Country Profiles Egypt The effects of the revolution in ICTs [information and communication technologies] should not be limited to achieving economic and developmental gains. They should be extended to strengthening political, social, and cultural links among nations to bring about world peace base
Saturday, November 19,2005 00:00
by HRW

Country Profiles

Egypt

The effects of the revolution in ICTs [information and communication technologies] should not be limited to achieving economic and developmental gains. They should be extended to strengthening political, social, and cultural links among nations to bring about world peace based on justice, equality, and… supporting national efforts toward more freedom, democracy, and respect of human rights.
—Egyptian President Husni Mubarak34

The Egyptian government is pursuing an ambiguous policy with regard to the Internet and communication technologies. On the one hand, Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif, Minister of Communication and Information Technology Tariq Kamil, and Minister of Education Ahmad Jamal al-Din have embarked on an ambitious program to expand Egyptians’ access to information over the Internet—with impressive results. The government does not engage in widespread online censorship. Many Egyptian human rights activists say that Internet access has considerably strengthened the reach and effectiveness of the movement in Egypt.

Speaking at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2003, President Mubarak called information technology a tool for “supporting national efforts toward more freedom, democracy, and respect of human rights.”35 At the Pan-Arab Conference on WSIS held in Cairo in May 2005, Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif told the assembled Arab and African leaders, “Knowledge and information have become—now more than ever—the main sources of prosperity and progress.” But their status as such, he continued, rested on the principle that “access to and the free flow of information are basic human rights.”36 

On the other hand, the Ministry of the Interior, the office of the prosecutor general, and related security services have blocked several Web sites and detained individuals for their activities online. There is evidence that the authorities have monitored online communications without first obtaining search warrants. The authorities have blocked Web sites associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, arguably Egypt’s largest opposition movement, and the al-`Amal (Labor) Party, another Islamist group. For a time the Cairo vice squad used the Internet to entrap people engaged in consensual and private homosexual conduct.37 Law enforcement officials have advocated legislation that would increase government control over Egyptians’ access to information online. Most seriously, the government retains a number of laws and Penal Code provisions that the authorities have used in the past to criminalize the exercise of freedom of expression, laws whose broad and vague language clearly represent a threat to expression and the exchange of information over the Internet as well.

Access to the Internet

Egypt first established connections to the Internet in October 1993 through two bodies: the Egyptian Universities Network (EUN) and the Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC), established under the authority of the Cabinet.38 The EUN connected Egyptian universities to the Internet. The IDSC—where the current prime minister, his minister of communications and information technology, and the men who run many of the nation’s private Internet service providers (ISPs) worked before they rose to national prominence—connected a limited number of government offices and government-affiliated research institutes and companies to the Web.39 By 1994, the IDSC was providing free Internet service to 2,000 people in the public sector and in private companies with close ties to the government.40

The government made commercial Internet access available to the public in 1996. The technology caught on quickly despite the country’s creaking telecommunications infrastructure and relatively high price, a testament to the public’s interest in the services the Internet provided.41 By the third quarter of 1999, some 300,000 Egyptians used 45 ISPs and a growing number of Internet cafés to connect to the Internet.42

Legislative reform enacted in 1998 restructured the state monopoly Telecom Egypt and ultimately, with governmental support, allowed ISPs to build their own connections to the data “backbone” infrastructure that connects Egypt with the outside world. The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, established in October 1999, quickly set to work overhauling the country’s telecommunications infrastructure. As service became faster, more reliable, and more widely available, Internet cafés proliferated and more people connected for the first time.

In January 2002, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, in cooperation with Telecom Egypt and the private ISPs, launched the “Free Internet Program.” By September 2002, Internet service was available for the cost of a local call (roughly $0.15 an hour) nationwide. Revenues are shared between Telecom Egypt and the ISPs. Since the program’s introduction, the number of Internet users has quadrupled, from 1 million users in January 2002 to 4 million by March 2005.43

In March 2004, the government launched a program to make broadband connections more affordable and improve the infrastructure to allow greater data traffic. Its first step was to cut the cost of high-speed asymmetrical digital subscriber lines (ADSL) connections by 50 percent, to LE150 (US$25) a month.44

The government says it is developing a “PC for Every Home” program, whereby families will be able to pay for computers on credit via a monthly surcharge on their telephone bills. On June 26, 2005, Minister of Communications and Information Technology Tariq Kamil announced that the government and U.S.-based chip manufacturers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices had agreed to produce a computer at a cost “appropriate to the circumstances of the Egyptian family,” or LE1,200 ($200).45

The government has also sponsored 1,302 “IT Clubs” in rural, underserved areas, with the aim of offering access to the Internet to those who cannot afford to buy a computer.46 For a fee of LE1 ($0.17) an hour, rural Egyptians can access the Internet and receive training in using software and web design. The “IT Clubs” are staffed by trainers who are required to live in the governorates in which they teach.47

This program is complemented by a “Smart Schools” initiative, funded in part by the United Nations Development Program and the government of Italy, to bring computers and computer training into Egyptian schools across the country.48

The government has further indicated that it is exploring broadband wireless technology as a means of expanding voice and data communications in the country. In 2005, the government conducted a six-month test of a WiMAX (wireless interoperability for microwave access) connection in the “Smart Village” it began constructing in 2003 as a means of attracting high-tech investment.49 WiMAX technology transmits large volumes of data wirelessly and at high speeds. If successfully implemented, the government could potentially use WiMAX to offer entire villages or cities broadband, wireless Internet and voice communications.50 A successful WiMAX program could allow Egypt to bypass several steps in developing its communications infrastructure: Rather than having to string telephone cables, improve existing landline telephone exchanges, and better integrate them with the Internet “backbone,” it could simply install a series of WiMAX transmitters that could blanket large areas with broadband, wireless Internet access.

Egypt has also launched an ambitious “e-government” scheme designed to make it easier for people to access information about and interact with the government. Egyptians can now log on to http://www.egypt.gov.eg to contact ministries, pay their phone bills, apply for copies of their birth certificates, get replacement national identification cards, inquire about tax and customs regulations, check how much they owe for their electricity bill, and so forth.51 Minister of State for Administrative Development Ahmad Darwish has promised that by 2010 there will be seventy such electronic services available, beginning with the Cairo and Giza governorates and extending to the rest of the country. He further promised that by the end of 2005, the ministry would have collected all administrative records for digitalization and that people could vote electronically in the 2010 elections. His hope, he said, was that this would save millions of Egyptian pounds annually by streamlining Egypt’s bureaucracy, which employs some 6 million people.52 Egypt has also detailed ambitious plans for using information and communications technologies (ICTs) to benefit public health, business, the environment, and culture.53

Spurred by these improvements, privately owned Internet cafés have become a common sight in even the poorest sections of the capital and are increasingly found in small towns throughout the country. The small city of Zaqaziq, in the al-Sharqiyya Governorate, now has 460 Internet cafés sustained, in part, by students at the local university.54

Information technology is now one the fastest-growing sectors of the Egyptian economy, growing at a rate of more than 16 percent a year. In 2000, the value of the information technology sector was worth $730 million. Today, that figure stands at $1.3 billion.55

The Internet and the Human Rights Movement

Egyptian human rights activists have argued that the spread of ICTs has appreciably strengthened the human rights movement in Egypt—to the extent that Mustafa `Abd al-`Aziz, a journalist for Cairo’s independent Nahdat al-Misr, recently proclaimed the Internet “a paradise of human rights.” “The difficulty of controlling the Internet,” he wrote, “Makes it one of the most open means of spreading human rights information to the public, particularly young people.”56 Gamal Eid, a defense lawyer specializing in human rights and Internet issues, describes the effect the Internet has had on the human rights movement as “immeasurable.” “Human rights organizations can now send out calls for help whenever the rights of a citizen have been violated,” he told Human Rights Watch. “They can now launch online campaigns directed at individuals, officials, and ministers by sending out emails accompanied by activist signatures to the president, the attorney general, or the minister of the interior.”57 As he spoke, emails were coming in from other Middle Eastern organizations signing on to a joint communiqué. The effort had been coordinated over the course of a day.

Activists and bloggers now use the Internet, email, and mobile phone text messages to publicize human rights abuses, organize protests, and even coordinate slogans to chant at protests. The Egyptian Blog Ring, a Web site set up to highlight and catalogue Egyptian blogs, listed some 390 Egyptian blogs as of September 2005.58 As elsewhere, a great many blogs are personal journals. Increasingly, though, bloggers are turning to politics.

“Baheyya,” one of the first and most respected Egyptian political bloggers, made her name with detailed analyses of the Egyptian political situation, and particularly of the umbrella Kifaya (“enough,” in Arabic) opposition group.59 Many Egyptian bloggers credit her with inspiring them to begin blogging about politics.

Ala’ `Abd al-Fattah, a young computer programmer and activist, significantly contributed to the growth of this phenomenon by offering technical training and support—and by his personal example. On the popular blog he runs with his wife Manal, `Abd al-Fattah announces coming demonstrations, complete with satellite maps, via Google, showing their location.60 On May 25, 2005, for instance, as Egyptians voted on a constitutional amendment that allowed challengers to run in the September 2005 elections, plainclothes security agents beat demonstrators and riot police encouraged mobs of Mubarak supporters to beat the demonstrators.61 `Abd al-Fattah was among those beaten. After the event, he published his photos showing and naming the officer directing the beating on his blog. He and others have also turned the photo into placards calling for an end to police brutality and carried them in subsequent demonstrations.

Galvanized by the violence around the May 25 referendum, a group of volunteers first launched a “national apology” campaign to call on those responsible, including the Interior Minister, to apologize. When no apology was forthcoming, a group of professionals joined together to form Shayfeenkum (“we are watching you,” in Arabic). The aim, spokeswoman Ghada al-Shahbandar said, was “to empower the Egyptian people to prevent this from happening again, to inspire civic participation through monitoring everything in public life, including the presidential election.”62

Al-Shahbandar described the group as “a national movement” that accepts no funding and has “no affiliation with any political party or program.”63 Shayfeenkum allows people to report human rights violations online and to attach photographs, and gives them the option to forward this information to newspapers and government ministries of their choice via their Web site, http://www.shayfeen.com. Shayfeenkum volunteers then analyze complaints alongside reports of what ministries and newspapers also received the complaints to determine if further action, including court action, is required.

In the weeks before the September 2005 presidential elections, some seven hundred people around the country volunteered to monitor polling stations for evidence of bribery, interference from security forces, incidents of violence, the shortage of indelible ink at polling stations (the ink is used to prevent people from voting twice), and six other possible violations.64 On election day, al-Shahbandar received a call on her mobile phone from Information Minister Anas Ahmad Nabih al-Faki. He told her he had reports from Shayfeenkum that there was no indelible ink at a polling station in downtown Cairo and that he was looking into the problem. A few hours later, he phoned back to tell al-Shahbandar that the report had been confirmed and that indelible ink was now available at the polling station.65

The experience was not all positive, though. Shayfeenkum volunteers reported some 1,000 complaints, mostly about voter registration lists, but also including intimidation and bribery.66 But absent from Shayfeenkum’s complaints were accounts of interference from security forces, a problem that had characterized past votes in Egypt.67

Shayfeenkum, whose membership has grown to 1,200 volunteers nationally, plans to apply the same methodology to the parliamentary elections scheduled for early November, and to questions of public health and safety. In the wake of a September 6, 2005, fire in a theater in Beni Suef, 100km (60 miles) south of Cairo, that left thirty-one people dead, Shayfeenkum volunteers are researching fires and industrial accidents in Egypt over the past twenty years and comparing Egyptian fire codes to those of European countries to see if the Egyptian codes need to be updated. They plan to use the Internet to educate the population about Egyptian public safety laws and to collect reports of infractions.68 More broadly, al-Shahbandar said, Shayfeenkum seeks to use the Internet “to carry the voice of the Egyptian people to the government.”69

In the months before Egypt’s presidential elections, Kifaya activists, sometimes in concert with the Muslim Brotherhood, staged near weekly demonstrations around Cairo. Immediately after each demonstration came to an end, photos and accounts began appearing on blogs. When protesters were beaten and arrested on August 1, 2005, blogs were among the first to carry the news.

Readers from around the world have posted messages of support on the opposition blogs. On June 19, 2005, All Together, a leftwing South Korean organization inspired by what they had read on the Internet, staged a “solidarity protest” in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Seoul.70

Ala’ `Abd al-Fattah says that the Internet’s role in publicizing the activities of the human rights movement has already contributed to a general change in the way Egyptians view the human rights movement:

Before most people saw it as foreign interference. The role the human rights movement played in attempting to support the Palestinian Intifada, a role publicized largely over the Internet, broke this completely. People, in general, are more receptive now to information being produced by human rights and development organizations. Human rights organizations are getting better at getting young people involved…as a result of publishing on the Web.71

The Internet’s role in strengthening the Egyptian human rights movement is a trend that looks likely to continue. “As the cost of using the Internet falls in Egypt,” The South Center for Human Rights’ Wajdi `Abd al-`Aziz predicts, “we can expect that the number of users will increase, thus increasing human rights organizations’ potential audience and magnifying the effect of the Internet overall as a space for airing one’s views.”72

Internet Censorship Issues

In September 2002, Egypt’s Interior Ministry formed the General Administration for Information and Documentation (GAID) to police the Internet. Its director, Ahmad Issmat, told al-Ahram that his staff monitors the Internet in real time. Police, he boasted, especially sought out those visiting pornographic Web sites and could quickly go to the home of someone doing so.73 Ignoring the fact that Egypt has no law that specifically prohibits visiting such sites, Issmat said that surveillance was easy because all ISPs passed through the state-run Egypt Telecom.74 In March 2004, the government-owned daily al-Ahram first reported the existence of another specialized unit within the Interior Ministry, the Department for Confronting Computer and Internet Crime.75 In practice, most of what these units do—tracking down those who use the Internet to send harassing text messages to mobile phones, for example—is uncontroversial.76 Yet—despite assurances from Moustafa Radi, director of the GAID, that “although Internet use [in Egypt] has grown both in real terms and in comparison to other countries, Internet crime is a phenomenon so negligible it doesn’t warrant attention”—many in the Interior Ministry, and, to be fair, in broader Egyptian society, continue to regard the Internet with suspicion.77

Morality

In its most benign form, this suspicion manifests itself as a concern for the morals of young people who use the Internet to chat with members of the opposite sex or to look at pornography.

Accordingly, in the early days of the Internet in Egypt, the government worked with the first commercial ISPs to censor Internet pornography. As more competitors entered the market, new ISPs offered “unfiltered” Internet access. Eventually, a former employee of the IDSC told Human Rights Watch, the government stopped requiring ISPs to filter Internet pornography in response to complaints from the biggest ISPs that they were losing business to ISPs that did not filter pornography.78

In February 2005, the Cultural Committee of the Cairo Local Council, echoing the findings of the al-Nuzha Local District Committee, requested that restrictions be placed on Internet cafés because they spread “moral degeneracy.”79 In the same month, senior officials in the southern Egyptian town of Qina said they were “revolted” by the spread of Internet cafés there and asked for more government raids to curtail the trend.80 Children, the officials complained, were skipping school to look at pornography on the Internet. Muhammad Tisala al-Alfi, an assistant to the attorney general and the chairman of the board of the Egyptian Association for the Internet, has argued for censoring sites he broadly defines as “not in accordance with the morals of the Egyptian people.”81  

Commercial software that allows users to filter pornography on home and business computers is widely available in Egypt. The quasi-governmental ISP TE Data, one of Egypt’s most popular ISPs, now offers a free, optional filtering service it calls the “Family Internet Plan.” One Internet café owner in the Sharqiyya governorate said he wrote his own program to block the use of pornographic sites. “It would be wrong for us to believe that pornographic sites ruin the overall benefit of the Internet,” he explained. “If every café owner regulated their own computers to keep their customers—especially the kids—from going to pornographic sites, the problems with the Internet would be finished.”82

Ultimately, as Muhammad Sa`id, a psychology professor at Zaqaziq University points out, the state cannot legislate morals. “The answer to the problem of Internet pornography doesn’t lie in regulation or censorship.... The true solution lies in instilling a conscience in children at home.”83

There is some evidence that young people in Egypt do exercise this self-regulation. For example, Muhammad `Adil Hussain, 17, told a reporter:

When I discovered a new site that discussed the ideas of young people, I was extremely pleased with it. But when I looked through the site, I discovered a tricky subject. They should have consulted others before they published it on the Internet so anyone could see it. It was a brave subject, actually, but one that was outside the scope of our traditions and customs. I felt embarrassed reading it. Apart from this, the rest of the subjects were entertaining. And the idea that there was a place where young people could express their ideas, dreams, and difficulties is something to which we all aspire. It’s all of our duties to regulate our own behavior so that we know how to distinguish between what should and shouldn’t be said.84

Political Violence

Governmental wariness of the Internet also stems from a concern that the technology can be a tool for recruitment and propaganda by groups that advocate and perpetrate violence. A week after the April 7, 2005, bombing in a Cairo neighborhood frequented by tourists that left five dead, Egypt’s prosecutor general, Mahir `Abd al-Wahid, called the bomber “a victim of the Internet:” security officials looking at his online records said he had spent time on Web sites affiliated with groups that advocate political violence.85 The pronouncement touched off a flood of articles in the Egyptian press. On April 15, 2005, the semi-official al-Ahram ran a full-page special on electronic “terrorist recruitment.”86 The next day, the semi-official al-Akhbar al-Yawm’s front page carried the headline, “Brainwashing on the Internet: Web sites of the Industry of Death and Centers for Producing Terrorism.”87 The independent al-Nahda al-Misr followed a few days later with a feature story on the Internet and the bombings.88 “The Internet: The Quickest Way to Recruit Extremists,” al-Akhbar headlined on May 16, 2005.89 Not to be outdone, journalists from the opposition newspaper al-Wafd spoke to Dr. Ahmad Mohsin, a professor at the al-Sadat Military Academy, about the best way to censor Web sites that seek to propagate political violence.90

Not surprisingly, the Sixth Conference on Cyber-Crime in Cairo on April 12, 2005, received detailed attention in the Egyptian press. Speaking on behalf of Egyptian Interior Minister Habib al-`Adli, Deputy Interior Minister `Abd al-Rahim al-Qanawi boasted of Egypt’s “advanced security system, both on the level of preventative procedures and on the level of cyber-crime, based on the latest theories of scientific research.”91 Al-Qanawi asserted that the GAID was proof of Egypt’s progress in the area. Mohammed Ibrahim, director of the Egyptian branch of Interpol, declared that the “world must band together to combat cyber-crime with an iron fist,”92 and Jean-Michel Louboutin, executive director of Interpol’s police services, reportedly praised Egypt for joining Interpol’s international security database.93

At the Eighth Arab Conference on Combating Terrorism in June 2005, attended by interior ministers from around the region, the conference’s Egyptian chairman, Assistant Interior Minister Brig. Gen. Ibrahim Hammad, said that sites that foster terrorism should be closed down as part of a proposed U.N. framework for combating online crime.94 His remarks received widespread coverage in the Egyptian press. So did a master’s thesis written by Muhammad Tisala al-Alfi, an official from the national prosecutor general’s office, which argued for the establishment of a pan-Arab Internet police force to patrol the Internet. He also advocated classifying the Internet in Egypt as a form of public display, and so subject to the relevant provisions of the penal code.95 Such statements from senior officials within Egypt’s security apparatus suggest that some seek expanded authority to control the Internet.

Governments may legitimately monitor electronic communications of people suspected of engaging in crimes such as planning violent attacks, provided they do so according to the law, and with independent judicial review that considers the need for such an intrusion on a case-by-case basis. Governments may also block Web sites that incite the commission of crimes. The cause for concern in this regard is that the Egyptian government has cited the threat of violence to justify a wide range of serious human rights abuses over the past several decades, including unwarranted restrictions on freedom of expression.

Case Studies of Internet Repression

Shohdy Naguib Sorour

In June 2002, the Sayyida Zainab court in Cairo sentenced Shohdy Naguib Sorour to a year in prison for possessing and distributing “Kuss Ummiyat,” a bitter and profane political satire written by his father, the late Egyptian avant-garde poet Naguib Sorour, between 1969 and 1974. The court found that Shohdy had posted the poem on the Web site http://www.wadada.net and that the poem transgressed public morality. The case against him (Case Number 1412 for the year 2001) was based on Article 178 of the Egyptian Penal Code, which reads, “Whoever makes or holds, for the purpose of trade, distribution, leasing, pasting, or displaying printed matter [or] manuscripts…if they are against public morals, shall be punished with detention for a period not exceeding two years and a fine of not less than 5,000 pounds and not exceeding 10,000 pounds or either penalty.”96 

Sorour’s lawyers argued that the prosecution could not prove that Sorour had posted the poem on the Internet. The court convicted Sorour even though the police assigned to investigate the case found that Sorour’s personal computer had no Internet connection and did not contain a copy of his famous father’s poem. The only piece of evidence the prosecution could produce was that Sorour, like thousands of his father’s admirers, possessed a hard copy of the poem.97  Even had the police been able to prove that Sorour had republished the poem online, his imprisonment would violate Egypt’s commitments to free speech.

Sorour indicated he would appeal the decision but fled the country before the appeal hearing. On October 14, 2002, the South Cairo Bab al-Khalq appeals court confirmed the Sayyida Zainab court’s one-year sentence.

Ashraf Ibrahim

In March 2003, Ashraf Ibrahim participated in Cairo demonstrations against the U.S.-led war in Iraq. He had previously been active in a solidarity committee that collected food and medical aid for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and organized peaceful protests against Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories. When he witnessed police violently dispersing antiwar demonstrations in late March 2003, he emailed accounts and photographs of the violence to international human rights organizations.98

On April 17, 2003, security agents raided his home and confiscated his computer, video camera, and other electronic equipment. Two days later, Ibrahim turned himself over to State Security Investigations. He was immediately detained under Egypt’s emergency legislation, which allows indefinite arbitrary detention. He was held at Mahkum Tora prison, near Cairo, and reportedly shared a cell with approximately forty criminal convicts, in violation of international standards requiring that pre-trial detainees be separated from convicted prisoners.99

Prosecutors initially told Ibrahim and his attorneys that he was under investigation for downloading information on human rights from the Internet, as well as information from the Web site of the al-Jazeera news service. He was held for nearly four months before the State Security Prosecution, on August 7, 2003, charged him with “harming Egypt’s reputation by spreading abroad false information regarding the internal affairs of the country to foreign bodies—human rights organizations—which includes, contrary to the truth, violations of human rights within the country.”100 This charge was based on Article 80(d) of Egypt’s Penal Code, which imposes a minimum sentence of six months and up to five years on “any Egyptian who deliberately discloses abroad false or tendentious news, information or rumors about the country’s internal situation,” or who “carries out any activity aimed at damaging the national interest of the country.” 

The authorities also charged him with belonging to an illegal organization—a group named in the indictment as the Revolutionary Socialists—and with possessing with the intent to distribute material relating to this group.101 Article 86(bis) of the Penal Code, passed as part of counter-terrorist legislation in 1992, sets criminal penalties for any person who establishes, runs, joins, or possesses and distributes publications of any organization or association or group that calls for suspending the constitution or laws, preventing one of the state institutions or a public authority from fulfilling its activities, or “impairing the national unity or social peace.”

On March 11, 2004, the Emergency State Security Court acquitted Ibrahim. He had spent almost a year in prison. The police officer in charge of the investigation never secured a warrant to monitor Ibrahim’s emails, with the result that prosecutors were unable to present them as evidence in court to substantiate the charge that he had passed information to international human rights organizations.102

Moreover, his detention violated the government’s stated policy on the privacy of emails and its international treaty commitments to privacy and freedom of expression. Article 19 of the ICCPR protects everyone’s right to “impart information of all kinds, regardless of frontiers…through any media of his choice.”103 The Egyptian government’s avowed policy is that “all…content [that is not obscene, harassing, or distressing], whether in emails or otherwise, is unaffected by the law and is considered the inviolate property of the user…The secrecy of such information is protected by law, and government authorities must obtain a court’s permission before intervening to find out any information of this kind.”104 Article 17 of the ICCPR states that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.”105

The Muslim Brotherhood

On June 5, 2004, the High State Security Prosecution detained twelve leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Munifiyya Governorate for three weeks. Among those imprisoned were several people who run a Web site called “Window onto Egypt” which presented the group’s ideology, press releases, newsletters, and letters from its leader. Security agents stated that the accused, members of a banned but tolerated organization, used the Internet to chat with each other, to post news about the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders and the group’s ideology, and to inform members of their assigned tasks.106

The Muslim Brotherhood is arguably the largest political opposition group in Egypt. Though banned for the past 50 years, the government has tolerated its existence, an ambiguity that officials have often exploited to detain members of the Muslim Brotherhood at will.

Prosecutors asserted that some of the detained ran the Window onto Egypt Web site on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood and used the Internet to communicate with other members of the organization. This suggests that security agents may have illegally monitored their online activities. Article 65 of the 2003 Communications Law circumscribes the authorities’ ability to monitor communications and provides clear guarantees of citizens’ privacy. Security agencies may only interfere with private communications after obtaining judicial authorization, which must be limited to thirty days and may only be issued in connection with the investigation of a crime punishable by more than three months in prison.107 Egypt is a party to the ICCPR, and its constitution, at Article 47, provides that “freedom of opinion shall be guaranteed. Every individual shall have the right to express his opinion and to publicize it verbally, in writing, by photography, or by other means of expression within the limits of the law.”108 In this case, if the security services did not procure a warrant in advance, the monitoring of the correspondence and online activities of the Muslim Brotherhood members would fall afoul of these rights guarantees. The government held the accused without charge for three weeks before releasing them—some on bail and others on their own recognizance—“pending further investigation.” The case is still open.109 

Ahmad Haridi

On April 28, 2002, the Bulaq Abu al-Aila Misdemeanor Court in Cairo sentenced Ahmad Haridi, editor of the online publication al-Mithaq al-`Arabi, to six months in prison for defaming Ibrahim Naf`i, then the government-appointed editor-in-chief and chairman of al-Ahram. Naf`i filed a criminal libel complaint in July 2001 after Haridi published a series of articles in May and June 2001 alleging that Naf`i and several other senior managers at al-Ahram were corrupt.110 Haridi appealed the Bulaq court’s decision and was released on bail of LE1,000 (U.S.$215 at the exchange rate at the time). The case was postponed until February 1, 2003, and remains open.

On October 12, 2004, Haridi filed a complaint in the Cairo Administrative Court against the prime minister and the minister of communications and information technology, charging that from September 1, 2004, the government had illegally blocked his Web site, http://www.almethaqalaraby.net/.111 He asked for the ban to be lifted and for LE10 million, plus legal costs, in compensation.112 Shortly before the first hearing, the block on the Web site was lifted.113

Lawyers for the prime minister and the minister of communications and technology argued that the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) was the responsible government agency.114 Lawyers for the NTRA, in turn, argued that any number of Egyptian government agencies had the authority to censor Web sites. The NTRA lawyers argued that the Information Technology Development Authority (ITDA), established by the 2004 Electronic Signatures Law under the authority of the minister of the communications and technology, was responsible for licensing and overseeing Web sites, thereby pointing the finger back at the minister of communications and technology.115 The lawyers further argued that the prime minister could equally be held responsible for blocking Haridi’s site because the IDSC, which is under his control, had acted as the representative of the Egyptian authorities in the 2001 libel case.116 Finally, they argued that under the 2003 Telecommunications Law, all symbols, signs, pictures, letters, messages, pictures and sounds are subject to the censorship of the military and national security agencies.117 The case is still open.

Ambassador Fahmy told Human Rights Watch, “Sites may not be blocked or shut down without following the relevant legal procedures. The law allows the executive authorities to issue regulations concerning sites that threaten the safety and security of society within the framework of existing laws.”118 In Haridi’s case, lawyers for the prime minister, the minister of communications and technology, and the NTRA argued that a range of government agencies could block a Web site for alleging that an editor with close ties to the ruling party was corrupt. That lawyers representing different governmental bodies argued against each other regarding who had authority to block a Web site suggests that the “relevant legal procedures” and the proper justifications for blocking a Web site are unclear even to government lawyers.

Iman Badawi

On September 2, 2000, EgyptAir pilot `Ali Murad landed an EgyptAir passenger plane in Gaza Airport and, after failing to get instructions from his supervisors and the Egyptian Embassy, refused to allow Israeli soldiers to inspect the plane, returning instead to Cairo. EgyptAir referred him to the Administrative Prosecutor for causing the company financial loss. The prosecutor suspended him from work without pay. On March 21, 2001, after Murad became a cause celèbre in Egypt and throughout the Arab world and a team of volunteer celebrity lawyers came to his defense, a High Disciplinary Court ruling absolved him of any wrongdoing and ordered EgyptAir to pay him his missed wages.119

In May 2002, the company suspended Murad without pay again. Iman Badawi circulated emails calling for a boycott of the company and posted an online petition addressed to “President Mubarak and all patriots,” calling for Murad to be reinstated in his job, with back pay.120 According to Badawi’s lawyers, in July 2004 Civil Aviation Minister Ahmad Muhammad Shafiq accused Badawi of publishing “false news” about EgyptAir and of libel.121 Both charges are criminal offenses under Egyptian law. The minister’s lawyers gave the prosecutor a compact disk containing the email and the IP address from which it had been sent. The prosecutor, in turn, asked the Ministry of the Interior’s “cyber-crime” unit to verify that the email had come from Badawi’s computer. The unit reportedly confirmed that the email had come from an IP address assigned to Badawi’s phone number, but would not give Badawi’s lawyers a copy of the report on the grounds that the investigation was in progress.122 The case is still open, though authorities have reportedly stopped pursuing the charges.123

Internet Cafés in Egypt

In July 2005, Ambassador Fahmy informed Human Rights Watch,

As regards Internet cafés and libraries, in general terms, the law does not prevent or allow any party to interfere in their operation. However, as is the case with all commercial activities, anyone wishing to open an Internet café or library must first obtain a license from the relevant authorities. Such cafés may only be closed by court ruling.124

This stands in marked contrast to then-IDSC Chairman Ra’fat Radwan’s recommendations five years ago:

Net cafés must be monitored. Any activity has good and bad elements. There should be several restrictions such as a central control on material sent through the Internet that could be against Egyptian principles. The Vice Squad in the Ministry of the Interior should play a role in monitoring these Internet cafés.125

In December 2004, the authorities arrested twenty-one Internet café owners in Cairo, in what al-Ahram called a “huge crackdown,” and reportedly seized seven computers containing films and images “affronting public decency.”126 The owners were fined for operating without a license and released. Their computers were never returned.127

This was not the first time Internet café owners had run into trouble with the authorities. Internet café owners have long reported that Interior Ministry officials required them to record the names and identification numbers of their clients on a log, alongside photocopies of clients’ identification cards. In April 2003, an Internet café owner who spoke on condition of anonymity told human rights investigators:

Someone came and told me that the police assistant wanted me to see him at 10 p.m. When I went, I found many people I know who own Internet cafés. “Do you have licenses?” the police assistant asked us. We answered, “No, but we could apply for licenses, Pasha.” He said, “No problem, but I want you to take the visitors’ photocopied identification cards when they come to use the Internet at your cafés and also to see what Web sites they visit on the Net.” We answered, “O.K.” I began to ask visitors to give me a photocopy of their ID, but they refused and left. So I decided not to ask in order not to lose my customers.”128

In interviews conducted in July and August 2005, clients at Internet cafés all told Human Rights Watch that café owners had asked them for their names and identification numbers at least once. Several said that when they had questioned the café owner, he replied that it was a Ministry of the Interior regulation, and that they could invent a name and number if they preferred. Café owners told Egyptian human rights investigators they were not required to furnish the lists to the Ministry of the Interior regularly but were required to keep them as records.129 Many said that they enforced the rule laxly: “If a customer comes in with a beard,” one café owner said, “I ask for his ID. If he looks like a working-class guy, I ask. But if he looks middle-class or if he is good looking, I don’t ask. I want these people as customers.”130

Blocking Web Sites

To date, there have been few reported cases of Web sites being blocked in Egypt. Articles that had been censored in print publications such as the Cairo Times and the Middle East Times ran in their entirety online. Egyptian organizations and individuals continue to criticize government policies and individual officials in strong terms online. With a few notable exceptions they do so without interference from the regime.

Those exceptions are important. Recent tests conducted by computer-savvy activists in Egypt and the United States over the course of March 2005 confirmed that http://www.ikhwanonline.com, the official Web site of the Muslim Brotherhood, was blocked by Egypt’s most-popular ISPs.131 However, http://www.ikhwanonline.org, which redirects a visitor to a mirror site hosted by a third party, was available. Human Rights Watch tests conducted in Cairo over the course of July-September 2005 confirmed both these results.

The continued availability of http://www.ikhwanline.org provides a glimpse into the continuing cat-and-mouse game played between the censors and the censored. Repeated attempts to access http://www.ikhwanonline.org from Cairo over the course of July-September 2005 found that the Web address redirected to a “mirror” site, http://ikhwanonline.org.previewyoursite.com. The site http://www.previewyoursite.com is registered to a Canadian company and is not blocked in Egypt.

Leftist and Islamist political movements continue to use the Web to organize their activities and to communicate, despite attempts by the Interior Ministry to disrupt these activities. Banned groups are now using third-party sites they do not officially endorse—public bulletin boards, chat rooms, and so on—to coordinate their activities.

Whereas the Muslim Brotherhood once announced protests primarily on the group’s site, today the organization relies on mass email campaigns and posts on other non-affiliated Web sites. “We’ve tried to avoid the ban by changing our IP address four times,” a Muslim Brotherhood member recently told al-Hayat, “but we’ve always been pursued. We eventually had to use a complex technological trick to avoid being blocked.”132 Likewise, the Islamist al-`Amal (Labor) Party leadership, whose activities the government has frozen for the past five years, now holds a weekly two-hour conference in a chat room—the location of which changes regularly—to plan its activities for the coming week.133 Both groups urge their members to use false names and email addresses, though this would not prevent anyone interested in determining their identities from doing so.134

Tests using the popular Egyptian ISP Link.net and conducted over the course of July-September 2005 confirmed that the Web site of the Labor Party’s biweekly newspaper al-Sha`ab, http://www.alshaab.com, banned since May 2000, was blocked in Egypt. The authorities banned the newspaper after it ran a series of scathing attacks on government ministers, culminating in a campaign against Culture Minister Faruq Husni after the ministry’s General Organization for Cultural Palaces published the Syrian novel Banquet for Seaweed—which the newspaper termed “blasphemous.”135 Students at Cairo’s al-Azhar University took to the streets in response, and clashes with the police left more than fifty injured.

Rather than pursuing the newspaper for incitement, an approach that would require the government to prove a causal relation between the article and the violence, the government instead used administrative means to shut down the paper and its Web site. In May 2000, the Political Parties Committee, an offshoot of the Shura Council—one third of which is appointed by the president—tasked with licensing political parties, froze the al-`Amal Party’s activities, citing a leadership dispute and its overtures to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. This indirectly but effectively robbed al-Sha`ab of its license to publish. The question of whether it also made the online version of the newspaper illegal is ambiguous under Egyptian law: Egyptians need not apply for a license to publish Web sites, but in this case the Web site was clearly connected to the hard copy of the newspaper.

Magdi Hussain, editor of al-Sha`ab at the time, notes that the newspaper was one of the first to go online, in 1997, and insists that the paper and its Web site were “illegally and unconstitutionally banned…We have thirteen court orders in our favor based on the constitution, which clearly states that ‘a newspaper cannot be banned through administrative means.’”136

The Library of Alexandria

On August 14, 2005, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), reported that Web sites of international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were unavailable at the Library of Alexandria.137 When Gamal Eid, the director of the ANHRI, told members of the Friends of the Library Association about his inability to access these sites, the members confirmed that the library blocked the Web sites of human rights organizations and popular email Web sites. A spokesman for the library has denied the library blocks any Web sites.138 Eid told Human Rights Watch that in September 2005 a journalist visited the library and found that the sites were then available.139 

Entrapment

Human Rights Watch knows of forty-six men arrested and brought to trial for homosexual conduct between 2001 and 2004 after they were entrapped by police over the Internet.140 Al-Wafd put the figure at more than 400.141 The men were lured by police agents posing as gay men named “Raoul,” “Wael Samy,” and “Dennis.” They developed online relationships with their victims, collected evidence that they had engaged in homosexual acts, and then lured them into meetings, where they were arrested. Most men entrapped over the Internet were charged with both the “habitual practice of debauchery” and with some form of “inducing” or “advertising” for debauchery. Often the only evidence of debauchery was whatever description of sexual acts “Raoul” elicited in Internet chat; since prosecutors present the chat in court as a printed-out text, moreover, authorities could easily have altered it.142 Likewise, the only evidence that the Internet personals ad belonged to the man arrested is the photograph (if “Raoul” persuaded him to send one) and the defendant’s signature at the police station; the authorities could have gotten the photograph through other means, and the police often obtained the signatures under torture.143

Local activists report that they are not aware of further arrests for “debauchery,” through the Internet or otherwise, since March 2004, when Human Rights Watch released a major report on the persecution of men engaged in homosexual conduct.144

Legal Framework

Article 47 of the Egyptian constitution promises that “freedom of opinion shall be guaranteed. Every individual shall have the right to express his opinion and to publicize it verbally, in writing, by photography, or by other means of expression within the limits of the law.”145

The 1996 Press Law states that “journalists are independent and not under the authority of anyone.” “Within the limits of the law,” it further states, “a journalist’s opinion or truthful information published by him may not be a reason for a violation of his personal security, and he must not be forced to disclose the sources of his information.”146 The question of whether online journalists are subject to the same protections as print journalists has yet to be tested in an Egyptian court. The reluctance of the Press Syndicate to admit online journalists to its ranks reflects uncertainty on this issue.147

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt became a party in 1982, guarantees the right to freedom of expression, including 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.”148

When Human Rights Watch asked the Egyptian government about its policy on Internet censorship, the government responded:

As regards blocking and censorship, it is unregulated by the authorities. However, service providers can provide this service to protect those accessing its sites, just as service provider companies can block indecent sites to protect families.  Sites may not be blocked or shut down without following the relevant legal procedures.  The law allows the executive authorities to issue regulations concerning sites that threaten the safety and security of society within the framework of existing laws.149

How censorship and blocking can be both “unregulated by the authorities” and subject to the executive authorities’ “regulations concerning sites that threaten the safety and security of society within the framework of existing laws” is unclear—especially given the framework of existing laws that specifically pertain to the Internet. The “E-Signature” Law (Law No. 14 of 2004) gives electronic signatures the same legal weight as written signatures; the 2003 Communications Law (Law No. 10 of 2003) places checks on the government’s authority to monitor electronic communications.150 Neither gives the executive authorities the power to block Web sites but, as the lawyers for the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority argued in the Ahmad Haridi case (see above), Egyptian law can be interpreted to mean that the government as well as the military and security agencies are in a position to censor online communications and block Web sites. In any event, according to Ahmad Saif al-Islam, director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, Egyptian prosecutors have at their disposal a raft of repressive legislation that they have used to criminalize the peaceful expression of views critical of the government and that they could apply to the Internet as well.151 The ambiguity allows the government to claim that it is pursuing an open policy with regard laws specific to the Internet. The government has rarely used these broader laws to date against Egyptians for their online activities, but the potential is there, as the detention and prosecution of Ashraf Ibrahim for disseminating “false news” illustrates.

Egypt’s Emergency Law (Law No. 162 of 1958 as amended), in effect almost continuously since 1967, gives the president broad powers, including the censorship, confiscation, and closing of newspapers on the grounds of protecting “public safety” and “national security.”152 Law 97/1992, known as the Law to Combat Terrorism, gives the government broader powers to combat political violence, and criminalizes forms of non-violent opposition.153 It has been used, for instance, to justify the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood and to imprison hundreds of Brotherhood activists and try them before military courts. The ban on the Muslim Brotherhood appears to be the basis for the government’s blocking of the group’s Web site.

Article 178 of the Penal Code was the basis for the charges brought against Shohdy Naguib Sorour (see above). It allows for the detention of whoever distributes or “displays pictures that are liable to offend against the country’s repute, whether by departing from the fact, giving an incorrect description, emphasizing improper aspects, or by any other means.”154 Article 179 allows for the detention of “whoever affronts the President of the Republic by means of any of the foregoing methods.”155 Article 185 further stipulates that insulting a public official in relation to the conduct of the official’s duty or service can be punished with a maximum of one year in prison.156 Article 303 allows imprisonment of up to two years for defamation of a public official in relation to the conduct of the official’s duty or service.157 Article 307 states that sentences should be doubled in cases where insult or defamation was produced as printed material.158

Article 98B of the Egyptian Penal Code, as amended in 1953, allows sentences of up to five years in prison for

whoever propagates in the Republic of Egypt, by any means, the call for changing the basic principles of the Constitution or the basic systems of the social community…once the use of force or terrorism, or any other illegal method, is noted in doing that. The same penalties shall be inflicted on whoever advocates in any way whatsoever the foregoing deeds.159

Article 98B(bis) further extends these penalties to “whoever obtains, personally or by an intermediary, or possesses written documents or printed matter comprising advocacy or propagation of anything of what is prescribed in articles 98B and 174, if they are prepared for distribution or for access by third parties, and whoever possesses any means of printing, recording or publicity which is appropriated, even temporarily, for printing, recording, or diffusing calls, songs, or publicity concerning a doctrine, association, corporation, or organization having in view any of the purposes prescribed in the said two articles.”160 In the Internet age, that could be anyone who had ever visited an Islamist Web site or read a political speech reproduced on a reputable news Web site. Pages accessed on the Internet remain cached on the user’s computer in a form that could easily be used to redistribute them. Anyone using a computer with a connection to the Internet “possesses the means of printing, recording or publicity.”

Article 102(bis) of the Penal Code allows for the detention of “whoever deliberately diffuses news, information/data, or false or tendentious rumors, or propagates exciting publicity, if this is liable to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm and damage to public interest.”161

Encryption

Use of encryption technology in Egypt requires government permission. Ambassador Fahmy told Human Rights Watch:

The law prevents communications services operators and providers from using encryption technology until they have received permission to do so from the state communications agencies, the national security services and the armed forces.  It should be noted that permission is only granted if the reasons for employing encryption technology are found to be satisfactory.  Such permission has already been granted on numerous occasions.162

Conclusion

  • Access: The Egyptian government should actively pursue its programs to increase access to information via the Internet. Initiatives to spread WiMAX technology and computer literacy to rural areas and to decrease the costs of the technology show particular promise. Spurred in part by the government’s vigorous investment and innovative policies, Internet and communications technologies are spreading quickly throughout Egypt, with appreciable positive affect on the country’s human rights movement.
  • Censorship: In keeping with its stated goal of promoting “more freedom and democracy,” the government should remove the bans on Web sites of the Muslim Brotherhood and the al-`Amal party. 
  • Legislation: President Mubarak should make good on his pledge not to renew Egypt’s Emergency Law (Law 162/ 1958), which gives the president broad powers to censor and shut down the news media, and ensure that any new counter-terrorism legislation does not embody the same sort of broad and vaguely worded terms that serve to criminalize the exercise of free expression. The government should repeal Article 80(d) of Egypt’s Penal Code, which criminalizes disclosing “false news” about Egypt’s “internal situation” or doing anything “aimed at damaging the national interest of the country.”  Its broad and vaguely worded criminalization of “false or tendentious news” invites abuse and contravenes international standards on freedom of expression. Likewise, the government should seek the repeal of articles 98B(bis), 102(bis), 178(bis-third), 179, 185, and 303 of the Penal Code because they unduly restrict the right to access and disseminate information. These provisions respectively impose criminal penalties on whoever possesses documents calling for “changing the basic principles of the constitution,” “deliberately diffuses news, information/data…liable to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm and damage to public interest,” displays “pictures liable to offend against the country’s repute,” “affronts the President of the Republic,” or insults a public official in relation to the conduct of the official’s duty. The vagueness of these provisions invites abuse and contravenes international free expression standards.
  • Encryption and Anonymity: The Egyptian government should rescind legal restrictions on the use of encryption technology, and end the requirement that encryption users seek prior permission before doing so.
  • Internet Cafés: The Egyptian government should positively affirm, by ministerial decree or by law, that Egyptians have free and unimpeded access to Internet cafés and Internet-connected libraries, and that such businesses are not required to provide customer records without a specific court order based on a compelling and particularized showing of need in relation to the commission of a crime.
  • The Right to Access Information: The Egyptian government should prohibit courts from resting criminal liability on nothing more than evidence of visiting Web sites, even those that may legitimately be banned under international standards of free expression and information.

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