Autocratic regimes may differ in their policies and tactics, but their motives are usually the same. To secure their leadership, they usually seek to turn their societies into secretive and closed public domains.
North Korean president Kim Jong-Un, the world’s most enigmatic leader, has successfully limited his country’s access to the global internet. Other than the limited access granted to the government, there is virtually no network available to locals.
The crackdown on the internet in North Korea has resulted in an isolated, secretive society. With recent measures under consideration, it is feared that the Egyptian government is planning to follow in the footsteps of North Korea by also narrowing the public sphere.
The Egyptian government remains dominant over the media and parliament, the majority of which have adopted pro-government stances. Dissident and opposition voices, wherever they may be, have been mostly dimmed as the result of a continued government crackdown that has escalated in the past few years.
A former general turned parliament member, Tamer Al-Shehawy, filed a cybercrime bill in early May. Al-Shehawy’s bill claims that its target is to support counter-terrorism efforts and eliminate the ‘forces of evil’ on the internet.
The bill was subsequently approved by the Suggestions and Complaints Committee in the House of Representatives. According to the leaked version and to Al-Shehawy, it consists of 30 clauses, most of which are punitive not regulatory. The house has yet to vote on the bill in a general session.
The penalties that would be imposed by the law range from heavy fines to prison sentences to the death penalty which has raised concerns among civil society members and activists fearing that parliament will vote to pass it.
The bill is not the first of its kind attempting to target cybercrime. Another one was filed in May 2015, which also caused a stir. Concerned international organisations, which included the Committee to Protect Journalists, urged Al-Sisi to not sign the bill.
The bill and its message
Al-Shehawy told Daily News Egypt that there is a major difference between the cybercrime bill and the penal code, because the latter does not include explicit articles that criminalise acts on the internet. He also said that the crimes included in his bill have no reference in Egypt’s penal code. “New crimes need new laws to counter them,” he argued.
“There are several new crimes that have occurred on the internet lately, and this is why we need a new law to combat them,” said Al-Shehawy, adding that the threats Egypt is currently facing have changed, thus requiring new strategies and laws in dealing with them.
Al-Shehawy also said that this bill would criminalise wrongful acts and impose penalties, but does not seek to be regulatory of internet behaviour, which should be done by the Communications Committee.
“There are indeed some terminologies that need to be explained in the law in order not to be wrongfully used, and the bill shall be amended because it is not holy and may include imprecise terms,” Al-Shehawy said.
According to the MP, the bill’s importance lies in acknowledging the legal status of cybercrimes, adding that it was drafted in accordance with international standards.
When asked about his comment on the bill being likened to how North Korea, not even China, blocks internet access, he said that cybercrime laws in the international community are much stricter and have much more severe articles in terms of surveillance and penalties.
The United States’ cybercrime law includes provisions to combat fraud, identity theft, and the exploitation of minors, whereas such crimes are absent in the Egyptian bill
A member in the parliament’s Defence and National Security Committee, Al-Shehawy is known for his pro-government stance. For instance, he firmly supports President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s agreement with his Saudi counterpart that states the transfer of sovereignty of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia is legal.
Activists often attribute Al-Shehawy’s pro-government stance to his military background, as he was a former major general and officer in the military intelligence. This background showed in his unwillingness to enter dialogue, shining through in his issuing and executing of orders instead.
A cybercrime bill’s impact on freedoms
Abdel Ghaffar Shokr, vice-president of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), told Daily News Egypt that the government is trying its best to control society and to close the public domain, the last outlet of which is of course the internet.
“The authorities are not going to stop unless they fully suppress everyone and everything. There will be no exit left for anyone to express their opinions if this bill is approved,” Shokr said.
Mohammed Al-Taher, a researcher at the Association for Free Thought and Expression (AFTE), spoke to Daily News Egypt regarding the suggested bill. He said that the law suggested last year was nearly similar to the current one, although the current one has stricter and more severe penalties.
“The worst thing about the bill is the support for blocking and surveillance. Blocking never had a law, and surveillance will be carried out by communications companies under the umbrella of the law and will save information for up to six months,” Al-Taher said.
Another major problem in the bill is that it has different sentences for the same crime. If a crime that is considered contempt of religion is committed in the street, the penalty for it would be five years in prison, but if it is committed on the internet, then the sentence would be for life.
He added that the MP who drafted the bill, Al-Shehawy, does not understand the law or technology, and this was obvious in the sort of crimes that were included in the draft and the technical inapplicability of most of the bill’s clauses.
“There is no need for a cybercrime law in the first place, as it is like any other crime but the difference is that it is committed on/using the internet,” Al-Taher said, adding that internet activists may be arrested with or without this law so it does not even act as a proper legal framework.
“I can easily occupy the internet with two troops and make it a closed circuit for media figures to take their news from it,” Al-Sisi said in April 2016
Al-Taher continued that the real problem is the hostile nature of the state against the internet. This was especially apparent in recent speeches given by Al-Sisi, which he views the internet as an invention that the ‘forces of evil’ try to wield in their favour.
Amid a wide crackdown in the streets on protests and acts of the opposition, the internet opened up as the only space through which people could have a voice. The media is a closed space, where the government has either quashed all voices of dissent or self-censorship is a common practice in order to not be targeted by the state. If the internet becomes the next medium for control, the target would not only be journalists and opposition, it could be anyone.
Authorities have realised that there is no way to completely control the internet; however, instilling fear in the populace, which is the main aim of the law, works in the government’s favour, said Al-Taher.
Crackdown on the dissemination of information
Article 17: “…publishing phrases, numbers, pictures, films, or any promotional material that may threaten national security may be blocked…”
Al-Taher warns that Article 17 is very dangerous. It would possibly give authority to completely block information, because the term “national security” is very ambiguous and vague. The “threat to national security” charge is applied often and has been used by successive governments—from Hosni Mubarak to Mohamed Morsi to Al-Sisi—to curb dissent. There have been eight recorded cases of individuals being charged with threatening national security, tied to their actions on the internet.
Not only does the law include crimes with severe penalties, but it also stipulates that all mentioned crimes in the bill, if committed, may lead to a life sentence in prison, with all the ambiguity and vagueness which characterises this bill, Al-Taher went on.
Another crackdown on information circulation lies in the ‘sharing’ process. If this law were to be implemented, anyone who shares information leaks—with examples being WikiLeaks, Snowden’s leaks, or the Panama Papers—can be arrested. “This law was mainly drafted and suggested because of the major fear of information sharing,” said Al-Taher.
Who would the potential law affect?
Article 4: “Anyone who has the right to access a website or an information system and surpassed this right—by time or the level of access—to reach secret information may face a 2-year prison sentence, a fine of up to EGP 150,000, or both sentences”.
According to Al-Taher, if a user extracts secret or classified information from the internet, even if it is not their intention, they could face arrest.
If the email of an internet user is breached, and the breach was not reported within 24 hours and the hacker used the email for illegal acts, then the breached user may be subject to arrest and could face a EGP 50,000 fine and a minimum prison sentence of 6 months.
“The problem is that they are dealing with the users as if they are technical experts and know how to secure their accounts,” Al-Taher said, adding that the same applies to bloggers and website owners.
“The real catastrophe is that Al-Shehawy is convinced by, what he calls, fourth and fifth generation warfare,” he added, asserting that this trend is feared and believed to be true by the security apparatuses and by Al-Sisi himself.
All of these points threaten the internet’s provision of a free space for expression. The internet was a critical gathering point during the 25 January Revolution, which overthrown president Hosni Mubarak understood well and sought to end by cutting off internet access across the map.
While Mubarak was overthrown, now more than five years later a new government is working to make sure that they don’t suffer the same fate. The proposed bill creeps towards the extension of the practice of cracking down on internet users becoming legal and under absolute government control.
Civil society’s response to the cybercrime bill
Human rights organisations considered the bill an attempt to harass all of those who dissent or express opinions on social media.
Several NGOs, including the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and AFTE, have recommended that parliament reject the suggested bill.
A report that was released by a number of NGOs earlier this month claimed that the drafting of the bill was poor given the severity of the sentences and it addressing what is intended to be a criminal law.
The report criticised several articles in the bill, saying that it was drafted to be like the 2001 Budapest convention, an agreement that was heavily criticised by the international community for its vagueness and dangerous consequences to freedoms.
The NGO report concluded by saying that it would be more rational to amend the current Penal Code that already exists instead of drafting a new law that is full of substantial mistakes.
Gamal Eid, the head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), said in a press statement that the government has not learned its lesson and still insists on antagonising the youth, even after they have proved that they fear neither imprisonment nor oppressive regimes.
Is the internet that powerful in Egypt?
Internet activism has a relatively long history in Egypt. It goes beyond the 25 January Revolution, and significantly increased afterwards once the internet’s importance as an open space was fully realised. Social media outlets have been widely used in social and political campaigns, they have also rallied support for several causes, from the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page to the ongoing campaigns for the release of political detainees.
The public’s ability to impose pressure on the government through social media has proven that it is not to be underestimated. In March, former justice minister Ahmed Al-Zind resigned from his position following a severe backlash he received on social media after he said in an interview that he would imprison anyone who commits a wrongdoing, even if it were the Prophet Muhammad.
In December 2015, privately-owned Al-Nahar TV channel suspended the programme Sabaya Al-Kheir, hosted by the controversial TV anchor Reham Saeed, after she slandered a girl and aired her private photos.
The hashtag “Delete Al-Nahar Channel from satellites” went viral in response to Saeed’s actions.
Another incident that proved social media’s strength in Egypt was in May 2015, when former justice minister Mahfouz Saber said garbage collectors’ sons are unfit to occupy the position of a judge.
The classist comments caused a severe outcry on social media that asked for the minister to resign. Shortly after, Saber filed his resignation and it was approved.
Despite these victories, and the victory of protesters using the internet to mobilise for the 25 January Revolution, the internet’s threat to the government remains apparent. The cybercrime bill’s attempt to gain even more control may be a step towards seeking to control one of the only spaces for expression that remains.