The New Arab Logo

Breaking News
Egypt's struggle for freedom goes online Open in fullscreen

Laura Cappon

Egypt's struggle for freedom goes online

Egyptian freedoms have been severely curtailed in the past four years [AFP]

Date of publication: 11 February, 2018

Share this page:
  • 0

  • twitter
Egypt's clampdown on activists has moved from the streets to online, where following the wrong group on social media could land you in serious trouble with the law.
Wael Abbas was one of the most prominent bloggers and activists of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Last December his Twitter account - which had around 350,000 followers - was blocked.

"What they told me - using an automatic reply form - is that I posted something abusive. But they didn't clarify what kind of abuse it was. They didn't explain me if it was an anti-Semitic or misogynistic content, although I didn't post anything like that. I'm an activist, and what is happening is really crazy," Abbas said.

He said some of his videos they removed had been online for years. "So why are they removing them just now? My Twitter account was 11 years old. It means that ten years of political coverage is lost."

Abbas' case is emblematic of overall government repression in Egypt. While 60,000 political prisoners are languishing in Egyptian prisons, Cairo has also expanded its censorship of the internet.

According to Human Rights Watch, 429 websites have been blocked since last summer, while the Cairo government - led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi - has tightened its control over social networks and messaging apps.

"The situation in the country is horrible. If you are using social media they try to hack it or even to arrest you. Everybody in the Egyptian government has an interest to do that, including the president itself. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said publicly on TV that he can order a battalion to shut down the whole internet," Abbas said.

The situation in the country is horrible. If you are using social media they try to hack it or even to arrest you
- Wael Abbas, activist

Surveillance

Abbas said the repercussions of having the wrong app or liking the wrong political group on social media are grave.

"The policemen check your phone, they watch your Facebook and if you keep opposition-related materials, they can easily arrest you," he added.

"They are also using hackers to interfere in the accounts of people working with political prisoners and human rights associations. Everyone knows that our government even bought softwares from Europe in order to spy on us."

Tahrir square activists - who seven years ago helped overthrow former President Hosni Mubarak - are the ones who are paying the highest price in this crackdown.

Mubarak resigned on February 11, after 18 days of widespread protests, ending his 30-year reign and handing power to the army.

Last March, authorities released Mubarak after a top court finally acquitted him of involvement in protester deaths during the uprising.

Through Facebook and Twitter the activists were able to update the world about the demands of "The Square" and denounce the violence used by Egyptian security forces against the protesters.

International media outlets, meanwhile, often used Tahrir's tweeters as commentators on the issues of the day in Egypt.

Seven years later this seems to be a distant memory, as are the demands for bread, freedom and social justice that the Egyptian people shouted loudly during the 18 days of the revolution.

Many of Tahrir's Twitter activists have left the country, while others are in prison such as the icon of the revolution Alaa Abdel Fattah.

Ahmed Maher - the founder of "6 April Movement" and who played a key role in the 2011 revolution - finally had the chance of parole after three years in detention. He could still could be confined to a police station overnight at the discretion of security authorities.

The policemen check your phone, they watch your Facebook and if you keep opposition-related materials, they can easily arrest you
- Wael Abbas, activist

"Why am I still in Egypt? I am 43-years-old, I am too old to leave the country," Abbas said. "Moreover, someone has to keep fighting to restore dignity to a country where personal freedoms are increasingly restricted."

His political commitment began in 2004 when he commented on Egypt issues in online chatrooms and forums. He was at his most active between 2011 and 2013 - during the post-revolutionary transition that ended with Sisi's coup.

New order

Abbas campaigned to support Khaled Ali, a workers' rights lawyer who withdrew his candidacy in next March's presidential elections. Another candidate - former army chief-of-staff Sami Anan - was also arrested.

"Seven years ago we were at the centre of the world. We represented the self-organisation from the ground. Now Europe is thinking just about its interests and its commercial agreements," Abbas said. "They left us alone".

Another revolutionary activist who shows her political engagement on social media is Zeinab Mohamed. Using the nickname Zeinobia she is followed by about 235,000 people on Twitter. She also writes on her blog, Egyptian Chronicles. Founded around 10 years ago, it alternates between posts on Egyptian current affairs to archiving the rich history of the country.

"Egyptian government is not really controlling the freedom of speech on the internet and social media. It is still a free zone but they are trying to limit it through blocking websites and issuing laws like anti-terrorism law and e-crime law that include articles that can affect freedom of speech in Egypt," she said

"I do not think that there is any political landscape anymore in Egypt but opposing the regime through social media is still possible."

Lina Attallah is a journalist who challenges the censorship of the internet on a daily basis. She is the founder of Mada Masr, an independent newspaper that publishes its stories in English and Arabic. Mada is among the websites blocked in Egypt.

We know that our work involves many risks but social, economic and political issues do not have an independent coverage in this country. This is why we continue, despite everything
- Lina Attallah, Madr Masr

Lina - who boasts almost 50,000 followers on Twitter - leads an editorial staff composed by young journalists who started their career following 2011 protests for several private media outlets that over the years have lost their independence. It is a unique work in Egypt that continues to face censorship and threats.

"We know that our work involves many risks but social, economic and political issues do not have an independent coverage in this country. This is why we continue, despite everything," Attallah said.

The Mada Masr experience began in 2013, after the newspaper Attalah and her colleagues worked for closed its English edition.

They rented a flat and recovered the desks through donations. The website was launched and it has already been nominated for the 2018 Freedom of Expression Award in the journalism category.

"I feel we are not alone. Since last summer, around 400 local sites have been blocked. But we continue to publish and spread our content on other platforms, including Facebook," Attalah said.

"We also have publicised the way to manipulate the computer system to get around the block and continue to read us in Egypt. And we have not given up on working on stories that are not comfortable for our government. I also believe that the thirst for truth of Egyptian citizens has made the block of our site useless."

Al-Thaura Mustamerra - "The Revolution Continues" - "The Square" chanted during the protests. Seven years after the fall of Mubarak there are still those who fight for it.


Laura Cappon is an award-winning journalist who has covered stories across the world, including in Italy, Tunisia and Egypt. Follow Laura Cappon on Twitter: @lacappon

The New ArabComments

Most Popular

Most Popular

    Read More