Egypt

Egypt

Not Free
26
100
A Obstacles to Access 10 25
B Limits on Content 11 35
C Violations of User Rights 5 40
Last Year's Score & Status
28 100 Not Free

Overview

Internet freedom declined further as a result of increased blocking in the period surrounding the April 2019 constitutional referendum as well as two new pieces of legislation that allowed the blocking of websites deemed to threaten national security, compelled service providers to retain user data, and subjected bloggers and social media users to account deletion, fines, and imprisonment if they were found to be spreading false news. Pretrial detention for various journalists and activists was repeatedly extended during the coverage period.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who first took power in a July 2013 coup, continues to govern Egypt in an increasingly authoritarian manner. Meaningful political opposition is virtually nonexistent, as both liberal and Islamist activists face criminal prosecution and imprisonment. Terrorism persists in the Sinai Peninsula and has also struck the Egyptian mainland, despite the government’s use of aggressive and often abusive tactics to combat it.

Key Developments

June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019

  • In August 2018, President Sisi signed a new law that compels media outlets to obtain a license from the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR). The legislation defines media outlets to include any website or social media account with at least 5,000 subscribers, and the individuals behind such outlets could be subject to account deletion, fines, and imprisonment if they are found to be spreading false news. The law was first implemented in March 2019, when authorities fined and blocked the website of the independent newspaper Al-Mashhad (see B1, B6 and C2).

  • A law on combating cybercrime, which Sisi also signed in August 2018, legalized the blocking of websites that threaten national security or the economy. However, such threats are vaguely defined, and other provisions require service providers to retain user data for 180 days; this data can be requested by the state without a judicial order. Service providers and website creators or managers can also face prison and fines under the law (see B3, C2 and C6 ). 

  • Ahead of the April 2019 referendum, the website Batel was blocked after obtaining 60,000 signatures in opposition to the proposed constitutional amendments, which enhanced the powers of the president and were ultimately adopted. More than 34,000 websites that shared a hosting internet protocol (IP) range were also blocked in an apparent case of “collateral damage.” The affected sites included those of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious groups (see B1 and B8). 

  • A number of activists and journalists were arrested during the coverage period, and their pretrial detention periods were repeatedly extended (see C3). 

  • According to the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (MCIT), internet penetration stood at 48 percent as of March 2019, up from 41 percent at the end of 2017, while mobile penetration reached 100.62 percent. However, rates of access varied considerably across different parts of the country (see A1 and A2).

A Obstacles to Access

While internet penetration increased between 2017 and 2019, geographical disparities in access continue to pose an obstacle. Authorities reportedly disrupted the internet and other communications networks for several hours after an attack by the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Sinai in April 2019.

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 36

Despite attempts to improve the information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and increase the number of internet users in Egypt, internet connections continue to suffer from poor quality and low speeds. According to the Information and Communication Technology Indicators Bulletin, a report issued by the MCIT, internet penetration stood at 48 percent in March 2019, up from 41.2 percent at the end of 2017. The mobile phone penetration rate was 100.62 percent, amounting to more than 93.13 million subscriptions.1 Figures from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) put internet penetration at nearly 47 percent at the end of 2018 and mobile phone rates at 95 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants.2

Egyptians are increasingly using mobile services to access the internet. According to the same MCIT report, there were 40.9 million internet users, but only 6.74 million ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) subscriptions, which use fixed-line infrastructure. By contrast, there were 32.09 million mobile internet users.3

The National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (NTRA) has led reforms to upgrade the telecommunications infrastructure by installing fiber-optic cables to increase internet speeds. In 2016, it auctioned fourth-generation (4G) mobile service frequencies to all mobile providers.4 During a Cairo ICT conference in November 2018, the acting executive president of the NTRA announced that more advanced 5G mobile networks were expected to be launched in Egypt by 2020.5

In mid-2018, the MCIT announced plans to improve fixed-line connection speeds by switching from copper to fiber-optic cables. According to tests undertaken in recent years by Speedtest, Akamai Technologies, and OpenSignal, the quality of such connections in Egypt is relatively poor. In a 2018 Speedtest report, for example, while Egypt was ranked 95th for mobile internet, it was ranked 146th out of 150 countries for fixed broadband download speeds, which can be attributed in part to lack of ICT investment since the 2011 revolution.6

A2 0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 13

Broadband internet connections are relatively affordable. A monthly package costs about $12.33.1 While the state-owned internet service provider (ISP) continues to dominate the sector, increased competition among mobile providers has caused a decrease in broadband prices. Starting in September 2017, prices rose due to the implementation of a 14 percent value-added tax (VAT) on ADSL internet.2 Nonetheless, according to Cable, a London-based broadband comparison website, Egypt ranked ninth out of 195 countries on consumer broadband prices.3

The distribution of fixed-line internet access varies across different parts of the country. In the third quarter of 2018, 39 percent of the country’s ADSL subscriptions were in Greater Cairo, 32 percent were in the Nile Delta region, 13 percent were in Upper Egypt, 10 percent were in Alexandria and Matrouh, and 6 percent were in the Sinai, Red Sea, and Suez Canal areas.4 At the end of the third quarter of 2018, there were reportedly 5.99 million fixed-line subscribers in urban areas and 1.60 million subscribers in rural areas.5

Internet penetration is hindered by digital illiteracy, among other factors. The Inclusive Internet Index 2019 ranked Egypt 82nd out of 100 countries on support for digital literacy.6 In 2015, Facebook zero-rating services were provided by the Emirati telecommunications firm Etisalat for two months, during which time three million internet users gained free access to the internet. While a government official claimed that the offer’s permit was scheduled to expire in December 2015, the suspension came shortly before the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution, which had been driven in large part by organizing on social media.7 Reuters reported that the zero-rating services were suspended because Facebook had refused to comply with a government request to help conduct surveillance.8

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 26

The government has considerable control over internet infrastructure and has restricted connectivity.

In December 2018, signal jamming was reported by international journalists who were visiting North Sinai as part of a state-regulated media tour meant to promote a “return to normalcy” in the wake of a government counterterrorism campaign.1 In April 2019, communications disruptions were reported on social media following attacks by IS in the Sinai city of Sheikh Zuweid’s central market.2 Security forces reportedly shut down the internet and other communications networks for several hours as a result of the attack, which killed five civilians.3

The government has centralized the internet infrastructure and fiber-optic cables to create highly controllable choke points.4 In addition, virtually all of Egypt’s telecommunications infrastructure is owned by Telecom Egypt, a state-owned company. The arrangement makes it easy for the authorities to suspend internet access or decrease speeds, as was the case during the 2011 revolution.5

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services have been intermittently blocked on mobile networks. Users experienced disruptions when attempting to make voice calls via applications like WhatsApp, Apple’s FaceTime, Viber, Skype, and Facebook Messenger in April 2017.6 The disruptions may have been linked to the announcement of a three-month state of emergency after a terrorist attack killed dozens of people at a church on Palm Sunday.7 The NTRA denied that VoIP calls had been restricted.8 VoIP services had previously been blocked in October 2015, though in that case mobile service providers confirmed that the blocking had been requested by the NTRA.9 Periodic blockages of VoIP traffic over mobile networks were documented as early as 2010,10 but debate surrounding VoIP intensified in June 2013 after the NTRA announced the establishment of a committee to “monitor” communications on WhatsApp and Viber, pending a potential decision to block or restrict them. The NTRA cited an economic rationale, noting that the free services had a negative impact on traditional telecommunications companies.11 Making international calls over VoIP networks is technically illegal under Article 72 of the 2003 Telecommunication Regulation Law.12

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 36

The Egyptian ICT market is dominated by a small number of companies, creating obstacles to competition and innovation. Three companies largely control the mobile phone market. Vodafone Egypt enjoys the greatest market share, with 40.5 percent, while Orange Egypt has 33 percent. The latter, formerly known as Mobinil, underwent rebranding in 2016 and is now 99 percent owned by its French parent company.1 Etisalat Misr, with a 24 percent market share, is 66 percent owned by Etisalat, which has strong ties to the rulers of the United Arab Emirates.2 In 2017, the state-owned Telecom Egypt officially launched We,3 the country’s fourth mobile network. Telecom Egypt also owns about 45 percent of Vodafone Egypt.

Vodafone and Orange launched their 4G services in 2017 after receiving access to the frequencies from the government. We was the first mobile service provider to acquire a 4G license in 2016, but the remaining three companies faced delays due to their refusal to meet the terms set by the NTRA, including paying half of the license fee in US dollars.4 In receiving the license for We, Telecom Egypt promised to sell its Vodafone shares within a year, but the divestment had not occurred as of May 2019.5

Telecom Egypt, under the banner TE Data, controls 75 percent of the ADSL market. Egypt’s other main ISPs, also known as Class A ISPs, are Etisalat Egypt, Noor, and Vodafone Data. These companies lease lines from TE Data and resell bandwidth to smaller ISPs.6

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 14

Telecommunications services and ISPs are regulated by the NTRA under the 2003 Telecommunication Regulation Law. The law does not guarantee the independence of the NTRA.1 The authority is subordinated to the MCIT, and the members of its board are selected by the prime minister, who also determines their salaries.2 The NTRA board is chaired by the minister of communications and information technology and includes representatives from the Defense, Finance, and Interior Ministries; the National Security Council; the presidency; and trade unions, among others.3 Officially, the NTRA is responsible for ensuring a competitive environment in the market, managing the frequency spectrum, setting industry standards, and overseeing interconnection agreements.4 In addition, it aims to enhance and integrate advanced telecommunications and broadband technologies.5

The NTRA played a significant role in the five-day shutdown of internet and mobile services during the 2011 revolution. According to a judgement by an administrative court, the authority participated in all stages of the shutdown and represented the MCIT in this operation. It also worked with telecommunications companies to follow the Ministry of Interior decree calling for the shutdown; in the same judgement, the decree was ruled an infringement on the right to communicate, among other rights.6

B Limits on Content

More than 34,000 websites were blocked ahead of the April 2019 constitutional referendum, a deeply flawed vote in which expanded presidential powers were ultimately approved. The most notable site affected by blocking was Batel, a platform for opposition to the proposed constitutional amendments. A new law required media outlets to obtain a license from the SCMR and defined media outlets to include any website or social media account with at least 5,000 subscribers. Another new law authorized the blocking of websites that are deemed to threaten national security.

B1 0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 16

The state continued to block websites during the coverage period as part of a wider crackdown on freedom of expression and civil society activism.

At the end of the first quarter of 2019, 512 websites were reported blocked by the authorities.1 In July 2018, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) and the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) reported 178 blocked websites. Those sites, blocked largely through ISPs’ use of deep packet inspection (DPI), included news outlets (62 percent), censorship circumvention services (24 percent), human rights groups (6 percent), and political platforms (5 percent).2 The news sites, many of which had been blocked since the beginning of 2017, included Huffington Post Arabic, the financial newspaper Al-Borsa, and the entire online publishing platform Medium, where the blocked news outlet Mada Masr had reposted its content. Websites run by Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, the April 6 Youth Movement (which was active in the 2011 revolution), and the jailed democracy activist Alaa Abdel Fattah were also inaccessible. Medium and Reporters Without Borders were accessible again as of May 2019, however. Separately, some websites were blocked shortly after their launch, such as Katib, which reported on human rights violations, in June 2018,3 and Geem, a gender and sexuality website, in July 2018.4

As of May 2019, at least three cases had been submitted to the Administrative Court of the State Council in an effort to identify the state bodies that ordered the widespread blocking. In one instance, a committee responsible for the custody and administration of funds seized from the banned Muslim Brotherhood issued a public blocking order, but this accounted for just 33 websites.5

In April 2019, the Bitly service, which allows URLs to be shortened and is often used by online journalists and bloggers, was blocked for some 12 hours by several providers, including Telecom Egypt and Etisalat. While a reason for the blocking was not provided, it affected nearly 40 billion URLs.6

In December 2018, five sites owned by the company MO4 were blocked for not having licenses. Moreover, the SCMR determined that an article published by MO4’s online magazine Al-Fasla had been an “unjustified insult to the Egyptian passport” (see B6), and that another outlet, CairoScene, had “indecent pictures and pornographic expressions.”7 After it was blocked, the sports website Ibarina reported in January 2019 that a high-profile sports figure had sought the blocking in response to coverage of his intention to buy an Egyptian media group.8

In March 2019, the SCMR fined the online newspaper Al-Mashhad 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,800) and ordered the blocking of its website for six months after it allegedly defamed media figures by publishing inappropriate photos.9 The action was the first case of enforcement of the new media regulation law signed in August 2018. In April 2019, after Al-Mashhad appealed, the SCMR reduced the blocking duration to one month. However, the website was still not accessible as of May.10

The monitoring group NetBlocks found that more than 34,000 websites were blocked ahead of the April 2019 constitutional referendum in an apparent bid to suppress opposition to the amendments, which were adopted as a result of the deeply flawed vote. Among other changes, the amendments allowed President Sisi to seek reelection through 2030, granted him more power over the judiciary, and reinforced the role of the military in politics. Batel, a site that quickly collected 60,000 signatures in opposition to the amendments, was among those blocked, but many others had no obvious connection to the referendum.11 NetBlocks theorized that these sites, which shared a hosting IP range, were affected as “collateral damage” from the government’s blocking of Batel.12 Although Batel attempted to remain accessible via other domains, all were blocked by the authorities.13 In September 2019, after the coverage period, NetBlocks reported on disruptions to Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Skype, the BBC, and other news websites in the wake of anti-government protests (see B8).14 The head of the SCMR noted that the news website blockings may have been due to “inaccurate” coverage of the protests.15

Disruptions to the ride-hailing application Uber were reported in January 2019 amid the company’s negotiations with the government over data localization and state access to user data (see C6). Uber’s website was reportedly blocked during the same period.16

B2 0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 14

In recent years, the government has removed objectionable content from certain outlets. In March 2018, the Facebook page of the opposition television network Watan was removed, as was a Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated page bearing the name of the organization’s founder.1 Numerous government supporters had apparently reported the page to Facebook for violating the platform’s terms of service.

News outlets also regularly remove articles from their own websites. In May 2018, the Arabic website of Russian state broadcaster RT was pressured to remove an online poll it had posted regarding the disputed territories of Halayeb and Shalateen, on the Egyptian border with Sudan. The poll had drawn formal rebukes from the State Information Service (SIS) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and triggered the cancelation of an interview with the minister of foreign affairs.2

According to Twitter’s transparency report, the Egyptian government did not submit any content removal requests between July and December 2018.3 During the same period, Facebook received two removal requests stemming from private reports of defamation, and Google received one request involving religious offense between January and June 2018.4

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 14

The legal framework that regulates the digital space includes some restrictions that are neither necessary nor proportionate and that mostly lack transparency. In May 2018, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled on an appeal of a 2013 case centered on a video called The Innocence of Muslims that was deemed to have denigrated the prophet Muhammad. The final ruling ordered regulators to block YouTube for a month,1 and government agencies and the NTRA were authorized to block websites on national security grounds.2 The decision limited the ability of administrative courts to restrict executive orders for online censorship and facilitated new legislation granting judicial and executive bodies the right to block websites.3

In August 2018, a few months after this ruling, President Sisi signed a new law on combating cybercrime and a law on media regulation, respectively.4 The cybercrime law, or Law No. 175 of 2018 (see C2), allows state authorities to block websites without a judicial order for “publishing any content that constitutes a crime under the law, provided it poses a threat to national security or endangers the security of the country or its national economy”—conditions that are only vaguely defined. Personnel at service providers that do not respond swiftly to blocking decisions face prison and fines.5 The government claimed that the law was meant to combat online theft and hacking.6 The media regulations law, or Law No. 180 of 2018 (see B6 and C2), requires that news websites obtain a license from the SCMR. However, it is unclear whether blocked websites are able to apply for one, and whether they would remain blocked after obtaining a license.7 For example, the blocked news website Katib stopped operating after being told by the SCMR that it would not necessarily be unblocked even if it secured a license.8 In March 2019, officials published the potential penalties for violations of the media regulation law, which included suspensions, fines, and other disciplinary actions.9

The broadly worded 2015 antiterrorism law separately allows authorities to block content or websites that promote terrorism.10

In March 2018, the minister for communications and information technology stated that Egypt was working toward establishing an “Egyptian Facebook,” part of an effort to expand Egypt’s influence in social media. He added that Facebook and Google, which are used by millions of Egyptians, were making millions of dollars from advertisements, and that the revenue is not subject to taxes or fees (see B6).11 A local Facebook alternative, which had yet to be created as of May 2019, would also be more vulnerable to state coercion.

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 14

The rising number of arrests for social media posts has had a chilling effect on online speech. Online journalists are often reluctant to cross redlines on sensitive topics, including sectarian tensions, sexuality, the Muslim Brotherhood, political detainees, military operations in the Sinai, and the military’s outsized role in the national economy. A provision in the 2015 antiterrorism law criminalizes the publication of information regarding militant attacks that contradicts official government statements, prescribing up to two years in prison for violations.1 The new media regulation law approved in August 2018 made the publication of false news, as defined by the government, a criminal offense (see C2). Also during 2018, the SCMR established a committee tasked with monitoring social media for any important trends or prevailing ideas, which could further encourage self-censorship.2

Registering a web address using Egypt’s .eg domain requires the submission of personal data and copies of the applicant’s national identification document (see C4), which may inhibit local sites from carrying criticism of the government.

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 14

Online news outlets are controlled for the purpose of suppressing dissent and quelling free expression. A variety of laws are used to reinforce this control (see C2). Journalists and bloggers also face intimidation and smears by progovernment forces, online and in the news media (see C7).

Sheikh Shawki Allam, Egypt's grand mufti, has encouraged the screening of social media sites, claiming that a number of them promote false news.1 He has also issued a fatwa (religious edict) against Bitcoin, saying the cryptocurrency causes “fraud, betrayal, and ignorance.”2 Several members of the parliament have called on the government to censor social media and encouraged a campaign to raise awareness of the “dangers of Facebook.”

The media landscape is dominated by the online versions of state-owned newspapers or outlets that are backed by government-connected businessmen.3 In March 2018, following a report by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on human rights violations in Egypt, the public prosecutor started a hotline for reporting false news. Individuals can use text messages or WhatsApp to register complaints against media outlets and social media for content that could threaten national security.4

In January 2019, the president’s media office ordered two media companies, Egyptian Media Group (EMG) and D Media, to abstain from reporting on Sisi’s interview with the US television program 60 Minutes, including on their websites and social media accounts. The interview tackled many sensitive topics, including Egyptian-Israeli military cooperation and Egypt’s human rights record.5

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 03

The economic viability of independent news websites is constantly under threat. Many such outlets have closed, and others face financial troubles. Those subjected to blocking have suffered revenue losses, leading some to suspend their operations.1 In addition, the 2018 law on media regulation requires media outlets, defined to include any website or social media account with at least 5,000 subscribers, to pay a fee of a 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,800) to obtain a license from the SCMR and gain legal status.2 Outlets must also have at least 100,000 Egyptian pounds (US$ 5,600) in capital. The law allows sites to be blocked on several grounds, including spreading false news.3 In October 2018, the SCMR started accepting applications for licenses even though the law’s implementation guidelines had yet to be released.4 In January 2019, the SCMR announced that 113 websites had applied for registration and extended the deadline to obtain a license until the end of the month.5

In December 2018, the SCMR determined that an article from the online magazine Al-Fasla had made “an unjustified insult to the Egyptian passport” in its humorous coverage of a passport index, ordering the outlet to be blocked (see B1). It also called on the General Authority for Investment to suspend the site’s parent company, digital marketing firm MO4, noting that the outlet did not have an operating license.6

B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 24

At a time when traditional media have become increasingly consolidated in ownership and homogenized in content, online media have also struggled to maintain their independence and diversity of views.1 The most widely read news outlets, according to the most recent Alexa rankings, are primarily tabloids, news portals aligned with the government, and sports websites. The blogging platform Blogspot is the 15th most popular website in the country, an indication that many Egyptians use it to share opinions and news.2

The blocking of hundreds of websites has negatively affected diversity. According to a survey conducted by Northwestern University in Qatar, only 3 percent of internet users in Egypt use virtual private networks (VPN), which can be employed to bypass blocking and reach the obstructed sites.3

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 46

Digital activism and political organizing have been less prevalent in recent years due to widespread arrests, harsh prison sentences for dissidents and protesters, and the use of deadly force to suppress demonstrations.1 A law passed in 2013 effectively banned protests and gave police broad powers to crack down on unauthorized assemblies.2 At the end of the reporting period, numerous activists remained in jail for opposing the government.

The online platform Batel, launched on April 9, 2019, to mobilize opposition to that month’s constitutional referendum, was blocked after just 13 hours, having collected 60,000 signatures (see B1).3

A deadly Cairo train crash and fire in February 2019 prompted some social media users to condemn official negligence and propose demonstrations aimed at forcing accountability for the disaster, in which more than 20 people were killed and dozens of others were injured. More than 100 users were arrested for such comments, and many were charged with promoting terrorism.4

In September 2019, following the reporting period, social media users called for protesting against Sisi after the businessman and former military contractor Mohamed Ali posted videos alleging corruption by the president.5 Thousands of citizens demonstrated in cities including Cairo and Alexandria. Security and police forces responded with force and arrested almost 2,000 people (see C3).6

C Violations of User Rights

The new law on combating cybercrime, signed in August 2018, requires service providers to retain user data for 180 days, and the information can be requested by the state without a judicial order. Arrests of activists and journalists continued to be reported during the coverage period, with many facing repeated extensions of their pretrial detention.

C1 0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 06

Egypt’s constitution contains language that nominally guarantees freedom of the media, stating that Egyptians “have the right to own and issue newspapers and establish visual, audio, and digital media outlets.”1 A number of other articles affect online media and internet freedom:

  • Article 34 asserts the role of the government in preserving the security of cyberspace, “an integral part of the economic system and national security.”

  • According to Article 70, “the law shall regulate ownership and establishment procedures for visual and radio broadcast stations in addition to online newspapers.”

  • Article 71 states that censorship is forbidden “in any way,” and that no individuals should be jailed for crimes committed through publication. However, exceptions are made for censorship in “times of war or general mobilization,” and penalties for “incitement to violence,” “discrimination amongst citizens, or impugning the honor of individuals” are to be specified by law.2

  • Article 211 outlines the establishment of a national media council tasked with regulating “the affairs of radio, television, and printed and digital press, among others” and ensuring that the press maintains a commitment to “professional and ethical standards, as well as national security needs.” The SCMR was created in 2016, with the power to fine and suspend media organizations.3

  • The constitution permits the trial of civilians in military courts, despite objections from political activists.4

In April 2019, the parliament approved amendments to the constitution that would allow Sisi to stay in power until 2030, extending his current four-year term to six years and permitting him to seek an additional six-year term in 2024. Among other changes, the amendments granted the president greater control over the judiciary and expanded the political and judicial authority of the military.5 The new provisions were confirmed in the deeply flawed referendum held later that month.6

C2 0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 04

The legal framework that governs online activity restricts freedom of expression in a variety of ways. Defamation is considered a criminal offense and included in the penal code.1

In June 2018, the parliament approved three laws regulating the media.2 The laws, which replaced existing legislation and were all signed by the president in August, govern three official bodies: the National Press Authority, which mainly oversees state-owned print outlets; the National Media Authority, which is primarily responsible for state-owned broadcast outlets; and the SCMR, which supervises the media more broadly, including online media. The SCMR legislation, Law No. 180 of 2018, contained a number of new restrictions, stipulating that no media outlets could be established or managed in Egypt without a license from the SCMR. Moreover, the law defines media outlets to include blogs and personal social media accounts with at least 5,000 followers, subjecting the individuals behind them to account removal, fines, and imprisonment if they are found to be spreading false news (see B3 and B6).3

In August 2018, the president signed the new Law on Combating Cybercrimes, or Law No. 175 of 2018.4 It authorizes the blocking of websites that are deemed a threat to national security and punishes individuals who visit banned websites with up to one year in prison. Creators or managers of websites that are later banned could face up to two years in prison.5

The 2015 antiterrorism law broadened the scope of crimes that are considered terrorism offenses and prescribed harsh penalties for nonviolent acts.6 Article 27 establishes a minimum sentence of five years in prison for “setting up a website with the goal of promoting ideas or beliefs inciting to the use of violence, broadcasting information to mislead the police or judicial authorities on terrorism cases, or exchanging messages and issuing orders between terrorist groups or organizations.”7 Setting up a group with the intention of “advocating by any means the obstruction of provisions of the constitution or laws” is punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty. Activists argued that the broad language of the law could apply to any peaceful political party or advocacy group.8 Finally, journalists face heavy fines for disputing official accounts of attacks by militants. In March 2019, the legislative committee of the Egyptian parliament advanced amendments to the law that also prescribe severe penalties for expression-related crimes. The promotion of extremist ideology would carry a 10-year prison sentence, while promoting terrorist acts, extremist ideology, or ideas and beliefs that advocate violence could result in 15 years’ imprisonment.9

Earlier in 2015, President Sisi had issued a separate law broadening the definition of “terrorist entities” to include anyone who threatens public order “by any means” and allowing the state to draw up lists of alleged terrorists or terrorist organizations.10 The law was met with skepticism from legal experts and human rights activists, who said that its vague wording could allow the state to designate political parties, student unions, or human rights organizations as terrorist groups.11

Amendments to the law on states of emergency, the antiterrorism law, and the criminal code were rushed through in 2017 after terrorist attacks on three Coptic churches. The amendments allowed for the indefinite detention of individuals suspected of threatening national security through the use of special emergency courts, and curtailed the right to appeal the decisions of such courts and obtain a fair trial. Police may also detain individuals for seven days without bringing them before a judge or prosecutor.12 A similar law used during the era of former president Hosni Mubarak before 2011 was struck down by the Supreme Constitutional Court in 2013.

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 16

Internet users in Egypt operate in a highly repressive environment. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt is one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists; in 2018, 19 journalists were detained for publishing false news, more than in any other country. Moreover, journalists are often detained for extensive periods of time without charge.1 Dozens of activists, human rights workers, and lawyers were arbitrarily detained in a wave of arrests that began in October 2018.2 The AFTE reported that during 2018, at least 20 social media users were jailed or dismissed from their jobs as a result of their online activity (see C7).3

The following were some of the more notable criminal cases involving critical online posts and commentary during the coverage period:

  • In March 2019, photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan, whose work has appeared online, was released after being sentenced to five years in prison in September 2018 for murder and belonging to a terrorist group. Initially arrested in August 2013 while reporting on the violent dispersal of a Muslim Brotherhood sit-in, he should have been released after the sentencing for time served; even after his release, he was required to spend every night for five years in a police station.4

  • Also in March 2019, Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent activist and blogger, was released from prison, but he was similarly required to spend every night in a police station for five years. He had been sentenced to five years in prison in 2015 for participating in a 2013 protest against legislation that effectively criminalized any protests without government permission. He was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in a separate case in 2017 for questioning judicial independence on Twitter.5

  • In April 2019, Amir Eissa, a member of the liberal Dustour Party, which opposed the constitutional amendments, was arrested after attempting to report bribery during the referendum. He remained in detention at the end of the coverage period for allegedly belonging to a terrorist group and harming peace and security through the use of social media.6 In February 2019, Ramadan Abu Zeid, also a member of the Dustour Party, was arrested along with three others and charged with involvement in a terrorist group and undermining national security by using a social media account to spread false news. Another critic of the amendments, Abeer al-Safti, faced similar allegations after being arrested in April 2019; she was held for 15 days.7

  • In January 2019, the 45-day pretrial detention of activist Shady al-Ghazaly Harb was renewed.8 He had been arrested in May 2018 and charged with insulting the president, spreading false news, and joining an illegal group.9 A progovernment lawyer had lodged a complaint against him over several tweets that were critical of the state and its foreign relations.10 Accused alongside Harb and other defendants were Walid Shawqi and Ayman Abdel-Moati, who were separately arrested in October 2018.11 In March 2019, Shawqi and Abdel-Moati’s detention was renewed by a Cairo court for 45 days.12 Harb’s detention has also been repeatedly extended, and he remained in custody at the end of the coverage period.13

  • Renowned journalist and blogger Wael Abbas was released in December 2018 on the condition that he spend four hours at a police station twice a week.14 He had been arrested in May 2018; police allegedly raided his house, ransacked it, and blindfolded him before taking him into custody. His detention was repeatedly renewed, and he was charged with disseminating false news and joining an outlawed group.15 Abbas is known as a leading activist and has published videos documenting police brutality and torture since the mid-2000s.

  • In December 2018, a court upheld activist Amal Fathy’s two-year prison sentence for “publication of false news undermining national security,” “possession of indecent material,” and “publicly insulting the state.” She was also fined 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($600). The sentencing had been suspended in September to allow for an appeal.16 Three days before the appeal was denied, Fathy was released on bail in connection with a second set of charges,17 including “belonging to a terrorist group,” “using a website to promote ideas calling for terrorist acts,” and “intentionally disseminating false news that could harm public security and interest.” Those charges arose in May 2018, when she was arrested two days after posting a video to her Facebook page that criticized the government for its failure to protect women from sexual harassment, deliver public services, and improve the human rights and socioeconomic situation. Prosecutors allege that Fathy is a member of the banned April 6 Youth Movement. After Fathy posted the Facebook video, detailing her own experience of sexual harassment, online trolls targeted her with gender-based insults and demanded her arrest. The case was picked up by state-owned and progovernment media, which falsely claimed that she was an April 6 activist currently working at the Egyptian Commission for Human Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), where her husband is the director.

  • In October 2018, two nurses working to establish an independent nurses’ union, Sayeda Fayed and Wadgi al-Sayed, were arrested, and Fayed was charged with publishing false news on social media. Her home was raided by security forces, who also seized her mobile phone and computer, and she was unable to communicate with her family while in custody.18 She was acquitted in November, and al-Sayed was released in December.

  • In June 2018, poet and activist Galal el-Behairy was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($600) for offenses including terrorist affiliation, spreading false news, and misusing social media. First arrested in March 2018, he had written an antigovernment song that was viewed widely on social media.19

Multiple prominent digital activists and online journalists remain in prison. In many cases, the individuals faced charges unrelated to their online activities, although their supporters argue that they were arrested to prevent them from expressing their views. Spreading false news, affiliation with a terrorist group, insulting the state, and inciting demonstrations are the prevailing allegations used to justify the arrest of human rights activists.

After the reporting period, in September 2019, a number of people were arrested for using social media to cover or comment on anti-government protests. For example, blogger Mohamed Ibrahim, also called Mohamed Oxygen, was arrested for live streaming the demonstrations and reporting about them online, as was photographer Sayed Abd Ellah, who was also live streaming. During Abd Ellah’s arrest, police physically attacked his wife and children and insulted him over his social media posts. Photographer Amr Hisham, who works for the online media outlet Masrawy, was also arrested. Additionally, political science professor Hassan Nafaa was arrested after tweeting that Sisi should step down.20

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 14

The NTRA’s 2010 Regulation of the Registration of Consumers’ Personal Data in Selling and Activating Mobile Lines requires distributors of SIM cards to collect the personal data from buyers’ identification documents before the cards can be activated.1 This threatens the anonymity of communication as well as the privacy and protection of personal data.

Individuals seeking to register a web address using Egypt’s .eg domain must submit their personal data and copies of their national identification document.

Encryption remains restricted. Article 64 of the Telecommunication Regulation Law outlaws the use by telecommunications companies, their employees, or their customers of any encryption equipment without written consent from the NTRA and security agencies.2 In a November 2018 report, the freedom of expression group Article 19 criticized Article 72 of the new media regulation law (Law No. 180) for granting the SCMR exclusive control over the establishment of encrypted platforms and requiring government approval for any other usage of such platforms.3

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 16

Surveillance is a significant concern for internet users in Egypt. Article 57 of the constitution states that private communications “may only be confiscated, examined, or monitored by causal judicial order, for a limited period of time, and in cases specified by the law.” Judicial warrants are needed for authorities to enter, search, or monitor private property such as homes, as specified in Article 58. In practice, the government’s surveillance operations lack transparency, potentially violating the constitution’s privacy protections.

A draft data protection law endorsed by a parliamentary committee in March 2019 would protect certain types of user data and establish a center to monitor compliance with the law.1 However, the same bill stipulated that service providers should retain users’ data for 180 days and provide access to state authorities upon request (see C6).2 The legislation was approved by the parliament after the coverage period, in June 2019.3

Research and leaked documents have shown that Egyptian authorities have purchased or received surveillance equipment from international companies like Blue Coat,4 Nokia Siemens Network,5 and Hacking Team.6 Following pressure from human rights organizations, Italy revoked authorization for the surveillance company Area SpA to sell equipment to Egypt’s Technical Research Department in early 2016.7

A provision of the antiterrorism law allows the police to monitor internet traffic and social media activity to “prevent their use for terrorist purposes.”8 A committee established by the NTRA tracks communications over VoIP services (see A3). The 2018 Law on Combating Cybercrime also facilitates surveillance by state authorities (see C6). Amid allegations that the government was monitoring communications over Facebook and Twitter, the MCIT asserted in March 2019 that the law does not provide for social media monitoring. Instead, the ministry said, it is focused on protecting privacy and personal data.9

In September 2018, Citizen Lab reported a suspected infection of mobile phones in Egypt with Pegasus spyware, which is produced by the Israeli company NSO Group. The spyware is installed when the target clicks on a malicious link, and the perpetrator is then able to access private data.10

A December 2018 European Parliament resolution noted that Egypt has bought surveillance equipment from European companies that enables hacking and the exploitation of malicious software. The technology has contributed to the crackdown against freedom of expression online.11 In July 2018, the International Federation for Human Rights published a report that unveiled French government and private-sector technical assistance that has helped Egyptian authorities to control internet infrastructure, monitor communications, and crack down on dissent.12

C6 0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 06

The government can obtain user information from companies without due process. Article 64 of the Telecommunication Regulation Law allows service providers, as well as their marketing agents, to collect “accurate information and data” from “individuals and various entities within the state.” It also compels providers to give security agencies access to their “equipment, systems, software, and communication.”1

According to Privacy International, the 2018 cybercrime law ”forces telecommunications providers, specifically ISPs, to provide technical assistance to surveillance operations conducted by law enforcement agencies and to collect data, including personal identifiers, metadata, and ‘other data’ not specified by the law and store them for a default period of 180 days.”2 Failure to retain data for this amount of time could result in a fine of up to 10 million Egyptian pounds ($600,000); a second violation can lead to a fine of 20 million pounds ($1.2 million) and revocation of the company’s license.3 State agencies can request the stored data without a judicial order,4 an apparent violation of Article 57 of the constitution (see C5).5

In June 2019, after the coverage period, the parliament approved a data protection law. The law prohibits the collection, processing, or dissemination of personal data without consent and applies to all residents of Egypt and Egyptian citizens, regardless of where they are living. Noncompliance could lead to a three-month prison sentence and a fine of up to one million Egyptian pounds ($60,000).6 However, the law contradicts the Telecommunication Regulation Law, posing a challenge for service providers.7

The communication and information technology minister described plans in March 2018 to create an Egyptian version of Facebook. A locally based social media company would presumably be easier for the government to coerce into providing data on its users (see B3).

In 2017, the Egyptian government requested access to the internal software of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Careem, including data about customers, drivers, and journeys. Uber rejected the request, but in a meeting with Egyptian military intelligence, Careem executives were reportedly offered preferential treatment if they agreed to provide the data. The company said no such deal was implemented.8

In March 2018, Uber and Careem were banned by Cairo’s administrative court after 42 taxi drivers filed a lawsuit against them. However, in April 2018, another court suspended the ruling until the higher administrative court could deliver a final verdict.9 In May of that year, the parliament passed a law to regulate ride-sharing apps,10 requiring that the companies obtain a five-year renewable license for a fee of 30 million Egyptian pounds ($1.7 million), that drivers pay annual fees to obtain special licenses, and that the companies retain user data for 180 days and share it with authorities “on request” and “according to the law.”11 Requests for data do not need to be accompanied by a warrant, though a decree from the prime minister is required.12 Following the law’s ratification in June 2018, negotiations between Uber and the government on implementing regulations were reportedly suspended in January 2019 due to controversy over whether the legislation can require user data to be stored in Egypt and whether security services can access it.13 According to legal analysts, however, a data localization requirement is not enshrined in the law.14

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 15

Imprisoned activists, bloggers, and journalists frequently experience abuse and torture while in detention. They are subject to lengthy pretrial detention, which in some cases lasts for years (see C3). In March 2019, transgender woman Malik al-Kashef was arrested and accused of involvement with a terrorist group and using social media to disrupt public order. She reportedly suffered sexual harassment and a forced anal examination in custody.1 Galal el-Behairy, the poet sentenced to prison in June 2018 after writing an antigovernment song that spread online, was reportedly tortured in detention (see C3).2

Bloggers are frequently intimidated online by government supporters, who often work in collaboration with progovernment news websites to smear prominent opponents. For example, in the period surrounding the March 2018 arrest of human rights defender Ezzat Ghoneim, who was accused along with others of spreading false news and “supporting a terrorist group,” progovernment media—including online outlets and Facebook accounts—denounced him for his work. A court ordered his conditional release in September 2018, but he was forcibly disappeared,3 appearing in court again only in February 2019, after which his detention was renewed every 45 days.4

Egyptians also face other sanctions for their online activities. For example, in June 2018, Ali Hassanein Abu Hamaila was sentenced to dismissal from his position at a state-owned television channel after posting criticism on Facebook of Egypt’s transfer of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. He was accused of insulting the president and violating the requirements of public office.5

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 13

Internet users in Egypt have been subject to several internal and external cyberattacks in recent years. The country was struck in 2017 by several cyberattacks that used ransomware and affected companies worldwide.1 In addition, a 2018 Citizen Lab report found that Telecom Egypt, the country’s main ISP, had been redirecting Egyptian internet users to malware that mines cryptocurrency or displays advertisements, apparently to generate revenue.2

In March 2019, the ITU ranked Egypt 23rd out of 165 countries in its 2018 Global Cybersecurity Index (GCI), which could indicate its commitment to cybersecurity.3 However, Trend Micro released a March 2018 report finding that Egypt was the third most vulnerable country in Africa to malware attacks, after South Africa and Morocco. The manufacturing, education, government, real-estate, and technology sectors were the most targeted.4

In July 2018, US cybersecurity firm Symantec reported on a new espionage campaign named “Leafminer,” allegedly led by a group based in Iran that, since early 2017, had targeted the Middle East region, including Egypt, to gain access to the emails, files, and databases of governments and businesses. The group penetrated networks by infecting websites that the entities might use with malware, scanning networks for vulnerabilities, and systematically attempting to log in to user accounts.5

Country Facts

  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    Yes
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes

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