By Tinuola Dada and Emna Sayadi
Ten years ago, we had reason to hope that Egypt would respect digital rights and embrace the internet. In a pivotal 2007 legal case, an administrative court rejected a lawsuit calling for 49 websites to be banned in Egypt. The court’s decision stressed its support for freedom of expression given that the websites do not damage public order. Two years later in 2009, the OpenNet Initiative found no evidence of internet filtering in Egypt in the four categories it monitored: political, social, conflict/security, or internet tools. Additionally, using data and information from 2010, Freedom House classified the status of internet freedom in Egypt as “Partly Free” in its 2011 Freedom on the Net index.
The 2011 Egyptian Uprising offered an opportunity to establish greater free expression, especially online, in the new government. Reflecting this optimistic outlook, on March 2011, Reporters Without Borders promoted Egypt from its “Internet Enemies” list to its countries “under surveillance” list, an improved ranking despite the infamous 2011 internet shutdown, where the Mubarak regime ordered telcos to cut off access to the global internet and deliver propaganda via SMS.
Today, the Egyptian government stepped back from a once-promising future. Instead of moving forward, it has used legal and extrajudicial methods to persecute journalists, activists, and civil society. In 2013, Egyptian coder, blogger, and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, who was a prominent voice during the Arab Spring, was arrested for violating Egypt’s protest law and sentenced to five years in prison. On April 9, 2017, after a terrorist attack on Christian churches, Egypt declared a “state of emergency,” giving authorities (armed forces, police, and president) legally sanctioned power to censor and monitor all forms of online communication. On May 24, 2017, an unknown body within the Egyptian government blocked at least 50 websites. Since then, an estimated total of 405 websites have been blocked, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.
The Egyptian government continues to expand the state of emergency, which opens the door for the government to monitor media on the pretext of protecting Egypt from terrorist attacks. Criminal investigations into the activities and funding of nongovernmental organizations have resulted in assets of seven human rights defenders and six organizations being frozen, travel bans being placed on 12 defenders, and the closure of one human rights organization. In May, President Sisi signed new legislation to restrict the activities of Egypt’s 47,000 local NGOs as well as about 100 foreign-financed ones. Their work will now be subject to approval by a new regulatory agency to ensure that it “fits with the state’s plans, development needs and priorities,” which many organizations believe will serve as a cover for interference by Egypt’s security agencies.
Now, in this most recent move, Egypt has attempted to restrict its citizens’ rights to seek, receive, and disseminate information. Most of the websites banned are independent news websites that have published articles critical of the Egyptian government, such as Mada Masr, Al Manassa and Daily News Egypt. Other blocked sites include international news such as Al Jazeera Arabic and Huffington Post Arabic, and websites that provide VPN and circumvention-related tools, such as TunnelBear and Tor Project.
What is being done
To continue to keep their readers informed, most of the censored news sites are circumventing the block by publishing their content via social media, and many of the blocked sites are also directly challenging the order. Avaaz, a formerly blocked website, created a “Stop the Blockade” petition for readers to sign, and Mada Masr, an Egyptian independent online newspaper and one of the first websites to be blocked, filed a report with the prosecutor general demanding an explanation from the government. Additionally, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression has argued that the block violates the Egyptian Constitution and filed a lawsuit in the administrative court claiming that prior notice from the government must be given prior to censorship orders.
On August 22, 2017, the United States took action to stop the human rights abuses occurring in Egypt. According to the New York Times, the State Department confirmed that the United States denied Egypt $96 million in aid and delayed $195 million in military funding due to its lack of progress in human rights and the new NGO law. As part of the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC), a multilateral body uniting several governments, the U.S. has committed to protecting online freedoms abroad. Access Now supports efforts by the FOC governments and others to use all diplomatic and economic tools at their disposal to promote digital rights in Egypt. But we’re also looking for ways that individuals and civil society groups can raise their voices to end the blocking.
Today, David Kaye, U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, and Fionnuala Ní Aloáin, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, released a statement concerning website blocking in Egypt. The experts expressed concern over the lack of transparency and the overbroad counter-terrorism legislation which has allowed the government to deprive “all Egyptians of basic information in the public interest.”
Egypt’s international legal obligations
Egypt has committed to upholding freedom of expression, and has signed several international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR). Article 19 of the ICCPR and Article 9 of the ACHPR explicitly affirm the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of information. As has been observed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Article 19(2) of the ICCPR protects both the form of expression adopted by an individual and the means they have used for its dissemination – this necessarily includes “electronic and internet-based modes of expression.” In addition, Egypt’s human rights record is reviewed along with every other country in the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process.
These treaties and mechanisms enable individuals and groups to directly raise relevant issues.
What are the next steps?
There are several complaint procedures outside of the periodic reviews for individuals to challenge human rights violations.
- The Human Rights Council complaint procedure allows individuals, groups, or non-governmental organizations that have been the direct victims of human rights abuses or have reliable information of human rights abuses to be brought to Human Rights Council’s attention.
- The Special Procedures for the Human Rights Council can receive complaints directly and query governments on these individual cases. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has created a helpful outline for the requirements for a complaint to the Special Procedures.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights also has a Communications Procedure that accepts complaints from individuals, groups, NGOs, and States concerning violations of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. If the Commission determines that there has been a violation, it will recommend that the offending State take remedial action. If the Commission receives communications that indicate a pattern of serious human rights violations, it can bring the case to the attention of the African Union Assembly.
Egypt is also up for review during the 34th session of the Universal Period Review (UPR) in November 2019. Civil society organizations can participate in the UPR process in five ways:
- Participate in the national consultations held by the State under Review
- Send information on the human rights situation in the country through the online submission form
- Lobby members of the Working Group, which consists of the 47 members of the Council, and other country delegates to submit recommendations
- Take the floor at the Human Rights Council during the adoption of the report
- Monitor and participate in the implementation by the State under Review of the UPR recommendations.
The deadline for stakeholder submissions is tentatively March 21st, 2019. More information about each of these methods can be found on the UPR-Info website.
Egypt’s international human rights record
Unfortunately, we cannot point to a strong record of Egypt responding positively to international human rights bodies. For example, the Human Rights Committee has previously commented on relevant issues with regards to Egypt. During the Human Rights Committee’s concluding review for Egypt in 2002, the Committee expressed concern over:
- The semi-permanent state of emergency that continued from 1981 to 2012
- Egypt’s use of counterterrorism as a justification for human rights violations
- Restrictions on NGO funding and activities
Each of these issues remains relevant in 2017, showing that Egypt has not taken the Committee’s concerns to heart.
Furthermore, Egypt has not fully participated in the review processes for the ICCPR or the ACHPR. Egypt has not submitted a State report to the Human Rights Committee for the ICCPR since 2002, and has consistently submitted late to the Committee. Egypt is also overdue by six reports to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. Egypt has also failed to respond to several communications from Special Rapporteur David Kaye, including his request for a country visit in 2015.
However, Egypt has demonstrated a willingness to participate in Universal Periodic Review and has submitted National reports when it was up for review in 2010 and 2014. Moreover, the United Nations and African Commission human rights mechanisms present an opportunity to place international pressure on Egypt both from the United Nations and from other States, and to set international legal standards that may influence future Egyptian political leaders.
Of course, Egypt isn’t the only country using censorship to silence dissent. In March, Russia blocked access to websites promoting an anti-government protest. Three months later, Turkey blocked Wikipedia after it refused to take down unflattering references to Turkey’s relationship with Syrian militants and state-sponsored terrorists. But given the quickly escalating trend in Egypt toward online censorship, we believe now is the time for civil society and our partners in government and the private sector to raise our voices in protest.
Access Now and our partners will closely monitor the expanding censorship in Egypt, and offer our support to individuals and groups looking to raise regional and international attention on the government’s abuses. If you or others would like assistance submitting comments or complaints to the U.N. or African Union mechanisms above, let us know!