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Egypt Extends Arbitrary Repression to Social Media

Opening a new front in the offensive, the government is pursuing its campaign online, scrutinizing social media groups for signs of dissent.

by Daria Solovieva
Feb 26 2014, 12:10am

Darla Hueske

The resignation of Egypt's interim government on Monday hasn’t affected the aggressive crackdown on Islamists by the country’s security forces — a campaign of repression that is increasingly targeting virtually all critics of the resurgent military regime, including journalists and social media users.

Originally mounted last July in order to restore security in Egypt following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, the offensive quickly expanded to include all members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood after the interim government declared the organization a terrorist group in December. (A Cairo court certified this designation on Monday.)

With the Brotherhood effectively blacklisted, Egypt’s security apparatus began to look beyond Islamists, and is now accusing journalists, academics, and secular opposition members of conspiring with terrorists and inciting violence.

In late January, the government charged 20 Al Jazeera journalists with offenses that included spreading false news, abetting terrorism, and (as the State Security Prosecution Office windily put it) using “broadcasting equipment and computers to gather footage and manipulate it to produce a false image to give the outside world the impression that what is happening in the country is a civil war.”

Observers believe the government singled out Al Jazeera because of its critical coverage.

Opening a new front in the offensive, the Interior Ministry is also pursuing its campaign online, scrutinizing social media groups for signs of dissent. Police arrested eight alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood on Monday, as they investigate whether these suspects had incited “organized violence against army and police personnel on social networking sites,” according to the local newspaper Egypt Independent. The websites in question are The Brotherhood Pulse, The Molotov Movement Against the Coup, and How to Make Conventional Bombs.

The eight detainees are also accused of arson and terrorism, among other crimes.

Mohamed Zaree, program manager at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, told VICE News that the increase in detentions over recent weeks is part of the military regime’s “revenge” against Islamists and all voices of dissent.

“Mubarak’s regime is trying to punish the people who toppled Mubarak,” he said. “This is the worst moment in Egypt in 40 years. Anything could be justified legally, anybody could be arrested.”

While the country’s penal code doesn’t specifically address social media, Egyptian law ostensibly guarantees freedom of expression — though recent developments obviously render this a dubious commitment.

In a statement to foreign journalists earlier this month, the State Information Service clarified (to the best of its inability) that Egyptian law “does not penalize for thought and opinion unless this thought turns really to a materialistic behavior that the Egyptian Penal code forbids. And this falls within the crimes that threaten the country’s national security and its benefits.”

In other words: journalists, watch your step.

Ironically, the government’s initiative has driven more young people to organize across the country via social media. In fact, Egypt has the highest percentage among developing nations of internet users who are active on social media, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project.

One partisan group, “60-Day War,” has more than 37,000 likes on Facebook.

“People who use social media to express their opinion can be punished,” Zaree said. “The penal code is very restrictive with regards to freedom of expression. It is very repressive and backwards.”

Aside from Sinai-based jihadists who have claimed responsibility for the assault on South Korean tourists earlier this month and various other attacks, there has been little evidence of organized groups coordinating violence against the state.

“Not every group is violence-oriented,” Mokhtar Awad, a research associate at the Center for American Progress, told VICE News. Awad tracks Egyptian social media groups that he refers to as “desperate youth groups.”

“Thus far we don’t have any evidence they've killed anyone,” he said.

The government appears oblivious to the likelihood of its heavy-handed approach backfiring and fueling a resistance movement, especially among the country’s young, disaffected citizens. The lack of political representation and legal justice is radicalizing many of them.

Egypt's Interior Ministry shows off its haul of bloodthirsty terrorists.

The Interior Ministry has been posting daily reports to its YouTube channel about the progress of its campaign against terrorism. The videos show that some of the “young terrorists” being arrested could be still in middle school.

“They don’t understand that they could be fostering an insurgency,” Awad said. “They think they can beat them with a whip like children — because some of them actually are children.”

Photo via Flickr