Technology played an important role in the 2011 Egyptian uprising. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were tools for raising awareness, coordinating, and mobilizing. Even before the revolution, the internet provided a space for citizen journalists to counter dominant narratives and discuss issues not covered by traditional media outlets. Today, many local organizations in the country continue to advocate for freedom of expression and an internet free of surveillance and censorship.
The Association For Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), based in Egypt, has been working toward this goal since 2006. According to Amira Abdelhamid, an International Advocacy Officer with AFTE, the organization’s work in freedom of expression is underpinned by its belief in the importance of privacy, transparency, and accountability. “We know that technology shapes and changes our rights,” she explains, adding that “there are those, including states, that want to capture the internet for their benefit and interests, and not in the interest of the public. We want to make the internet open and free, and not just in Egypt.”
Through a holistic toolkit of research, legal aid, documentation, and advocacy, AFTE works in five Egyptian governorates — Cairo, Giza, Ismailia, Alexandria, and Sharqia — on a range of issues under the freedom of expression umbrella, including media freedom, freedom of exchange of information, freedom of creativity, academic freedom, and the right to privacy. Their work supports and defends a broad community made up of journalists, media professionals, activists, academics, researchers, students, and artists.
This work has become especially difficult in the context of rapid legal and political change over the last few years. New laws enacted have restricted the right to freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration. The dissemination of information contrary to the official rhetoric has been criminalized. Anti-terrorism laws and states of emergency have been used to grant broad sweeping power to the government, while simultaneously restricting basic human rights and freedoms.
Most recently, the Egyptian parliament passed two troubling laws: the Cybercrime Law and the Media Regulation Law, which legalize website blocking and communications surveillance. Both of the laws greatly threaten freedom of expression and expand the authority of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation to ban publications, censor information, withdraw registration permits of media organizations, penalize writers, and ban blogs and social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers.
Together AFTE and Access Now, alongside a coalition of the world’s leading human rights and digital rights organizations from 25 countries, released a statement opposing the two laws. AFTE continues to campaign against ongoing restrictions on the internet with other Cairo-based organizations.
The shrinking civil society space in Egypt has made it more difficult for AFTE to conduct its work, too. There is an inherent difficulty in advocating against laws that prohibit online expression, in that the act of criticism can itself be prosecuted. According to Abdelhamid, fear of being associated with dissent can make it difficult for many Egyptians to participate in campaigns to educate themselves or defend their rights. Furthermore, their work prompting the international community to condemn or hold the Egyptian government accountable for human rights abuses has become even more challenging as governments with competing special interests – such as the European Union’s move to support the President of Egypt in exchange for a migration deal – bring new complications.
Despite these challenges, there are still stories of success that demonstrate the growing importance of AFTE’s work in the country and region. In the last three years, AFTE’s legal aid activities have benefited more than 500 people, having successfully secured the release of victims in 154 cases, acquittal in 45 cases, and reduced sentences in 123 cases. The organization’s reporting and monitoring work has played a crucial role in informing the international community and media outlets about the state of freedom of expression in Egypt, including David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur. They’re already looking for new ways to engage, with plans to launch two new advocacy campaigns on digital rights over the next two years.
They are not alone. According to Abdelhamid, advocates have been and continue to work collaboratively across the MENA region and together with the international community, fighting “the strong tide of laws that restrict the internet, violate people’s privacy, and heighten surveillance.” She hopes that Access Now holding RightsCon in the region can strengthen this work, and that the summit can serve as a platform for members of the digital Arab community to come together — despite the security challenges they face — to share their socio-political and digital contexts as a foundation for sustainable change.