Paranoia, ruthlessness and exploitation are all words which could be associated with the Egyptian government’s contentious relationship with social media.
Online networking platforms are essential tools for human rights defenders and organisations in Egypt to share their messages, as over 500 websites are blocked and Egypt has a very high number of social media users. Facebook’s key role in contributing to the momentum of the 2011 revolution, and, more recently, the protests sparked by exiled former state contractor and artist Mohamed Ali, demonstrate the potential this tool wields to create a democratic opening in Egypt.
These factors have led the regime to fear social media and adopt authoritarian practices and draconian legislation. Arrests for digital expression violations on trumped-up charges such as “publishing false news” and “misuse of social media” have been rising exponentially since 2016. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this has taken the form of arresting female social media influencers on TikTok out of defence of “family values.” In 2018, the authorities passed the Cybercrime Law, allowing censorship and the mass surveillance of communications, and the Media Regulation Law, which stipulates that social media accounts with over 5,000 followers are treated as media outlets – and can therefore be subject to censorship – and penalties for publishing false news.
The authorities attempt to justify these practices with a narrative of protection: fake news on social media represents a “danger” to the nation-state, which they must protect. For example, an official statement by the Public Prosecution stated that it “assures that protecting these cyber borders […] is a means of addressing a phenomenon abused by forces of evil [which] seek to destroy our society, demolish its values and principles […].”
Meanwhile, social media features in the government’s toolbox of repression as a means to spread their own propaganda and attack alternative voices. This, in addition to the political and economic cost, is seen as a reason why they have not blocked social media platforms outright (the Cost of Internet Shutdown Tool estimates that if Egypt shut down social media for one day, the total cost would be over 18 million US dollars). The authorities have been instrumental in shutting down activists’ Facebook pages and trolling their accounts and, in April 2020, it was reported that Twitter removed thousands of fake accounts linked to the Egyptian government. Fake accounts, criminalised by their very own Cybercrime Law, are used to cover up state blunders and smear opponents.
Also read the brand new EuroMed Rights report “Dangerous liaisons: social media as a (flawed) tool of resistance in Egypt”