During the year 2019, AFTE monitored 69 incidents in which 144 people were punished with pre-trial detention, detention, and investigation, for expressing their views on social media, whether by writing or publishing videos, and sometimes because they demonstrated in the streets or even for beeping in their homes. However, the prosecution -in most cases the Supreme State Security Prosecution- charged them all with misuse of social media and spreading false news. The largest percentage of violations occurred in Cairo governorate with 119 violations, followed by Giza governorate with 10 violations, followed by Alexandria governorate with 8 violations, and Sharqya with 4 violations, while a single violation occurred in Fayoum, Gharbya and Qalyubia governorates.
AFTE monitored the blocking of about 40 electronic websites by authorities in Egypt during the year.
Cases of arrest and investigation
On February 9, security forces arrested four students from Al Azhar University in Sharqia for appearing in a video that ridiculed some of the Christian religious practices; those were Mostafa Husseini Fakhri al-Khatib, Ali Godah Mohammd Attia Al Khatib, Hussain Mohamed Abdo Hussein and El Sayed Mostafa Said Salama. The prosecution accused them of contempt of the Christian religion and broadcasting a video inciting sectarian strife in Abu Hammad emergency state security case No. 163 of 2019. The Zagazig Misdemeanor Appellate Court decided to release them on February 27.
On the 16th of the same month The Cairo Appeal Prosecution summoned engineer Mamdouh Hamza, to investigate him in case No. 31 of 2017. Hamza faced charges of spreading false news that would disturb public security. The case goes back to the year 2017 when lawyer Samir Sabri filed an urgent report to the Attorney General and State Security Prosecution against Hamza because of some tweets on the social networking site “Twitter” about the residents of Al Warraq Island. The Public Prosecution ordered security forces to hold Hamza pending investigation of the Information Technology Investigation at the Ministry of the Interior and decided to complete the investigations the following day. It then decided to release him on bail of 20,000 pounds. It is noteworthy that in December 2018 the Supreme State Security Prosecution summoned Mamdouh Hamza to investigate him in a number of legal complaints filed by a group of lawyers against him, accusing him of calling for sabotage, rebellion and demonstration because of some of his tweets. The State Security Prosecution also ordered his release on bail 20,000 pounds after investigations that lasted for 6 hours.
In Alexandria, on March 6, Mohamed Al-Sharif was arrested, in front of the Alexandria Court of First Instance while some prisoners were stepping down the deportation vehicle, among them was the lawyer Mohamed Ramadan, for whom Al-Sharif was waiting. Al-Sherif was questioned by Al-Manshiyyah prosecution on the day after his arrest. The national security had attached his inquiries, which stated that Al-Sharif was filming the security barrier and the political defendants as they got out of the deportation vehicle for posting the filmed material on Facebook. The inquiries also stated that Al-Sharif is involved with the “banned” April 6 movement, which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, and that he established an electronic page called “Mohamed Al-Sharif” in English on “Facebook” to publish false news with instructions from the leaders of the April 6 Movement and the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize the country. On the basis of the investigations, Al-Manshiyyah Prosecution in Alexandria decided to imprison Mohamed Al-Sharif for 15 days pending investigations in the legal complaint No. 442 of 2019, after he was charged with joining a group established contrary to the provisions of the law and the constitution, and spreading false news against state institutions, as well as the possession and acquisition of a mobile phone to disseminate and promote the group’s ideas against state institutions.
The case was referred to the Alexandria Criminal Court, which acquitted-on June 3, 2019- Mohamed El-Sherif in Case No. 55 of 2019, Emergency State Security Crimes and No. 568 of 2019 East of Alexandria.
In the month of April, during the referendum on the constitutional amendments three citizens were arrested in different incidents, but all of them were accused of the use of a social media account to commit a crime punishable by the law that would threaten the security and safety of society. On April 21, security forces arrested Amir Mohamed Eissa, in front of a school in Qalyub area, while filming irregularities in front of a polling station during the referendum to amend the constitution. On the same day, Ahmed Badawi Abdel Meguid was arrested in the fifth settlement area because he raised a banner calling on citizens to vote against the constitutional amendments. The Supreme State Security Prosecution charged both Eissa and Abdel Meguid of belonging to a terrorist group and using an account on social media to commit a crime punishable by the law that would threaten the security and safety of the community. They were imprisoned pending investigations into the case No. 674 of 2019 of the Supreme State Security Prosecution.
On April 22, which was the third day of voting in the referendum on the constitutional amendments, the police arrested Abeer Al Safti. Al Safti was on her way to Kafr El Dawar in Beheira governorate, when the police forced the passengers of the vehicle she was travelling in to participate in the referendum. Al Safti protested forcing the passengers to vote, which led to her arrest.
The Supreme State Security Prosecution accused Abeer Al Safti of joining a terrorist group and misusing her account on social media. The Prosecution decided to detain her pending the case No. 674 for the year 2019, which is the same case in which Ahmed Badawi and Amir Eissa are detained. Al Safti was previously put in pre-trial detention pending the “Metro protests” case. She was released on November 19, 2018, and the pre-trial detention was replaced with precautionary measures.
During March calls for demonstrating spread on social media to denounce the Ramses train accident; in which killed more than 20 people. The calls varied between demonstrating on March 1 in Tahrir Square and other squares and whistling in the homes. Although the response to these calls was not widespread, security forces arrested not less than 126 people from different governorates, some of them from the streets and cafes in downtown Cairo, on suspicion of demonstrating on March 1, and others from their homes because of whistling. Most of those arrested were charged with “Participating with a terrorist group in one of the activities of that group and using social media to promote the ideas of that group”.
As a result of difficulty in accessing the case documents, the number of arrested persons is still unknown. However, AFTE found that there are 68 suspects in state security case No. 488 for the year 2019, for demonstrating on March 1. On the other hand, those who whistled were investigated in case No. 1739 for the year 2018, and around 52 defendants were imprisoned in this period.
Case No. 488 appeared again in September, when leftist activist Kamal Khalil joined it after security forces arrested him from his home on September 16, 2019.He was interrogated the following day by the Supreme State Security Prosecution, which decided to imprison him for 15 days pending investigations on charges of joining a terrorist group and spreading false news.
Subsequently, many lawyers, journalists, and university professors were added to this case after the end of the September 20 demonstrations that the contractor and actor Mohamed Ali called for. Until the time of writing, the following persons are still in custody: lawyer Mahinour Al-Masry, academics Hassan Nafaa and Hazem Hosni, lawyer Amr Imam, human rights defender, and activist Israa Abdel-Fattah, and finally journalists, Solafa Magdy, Hossam El-Sayyad, and Mohamed Salah. All were arrested on different dates and contexts but gathered in case 488 of 2019 for accusations related to publishing on social media.
In the same period, specifically on September 29th, while Alaa Abdel-Fattah’s mother was waiting in front of the Dokki police station at 6am, the time the daily monitoring of Abdel-Fattah ends, the university professor, Laila Suef, was surprised by the unusual tightening of the security in front of the police station. She asked about Abdel-Fattah, and the station informed her that he was arrested and deported to the State Security Prosecution. Several lawyers headed to attend the investigations with Abdel Fattah, including lawyer Muhammad Al-Baqer who was surprised at the prosecution’s office that there is detention decision against him pending the same case as Abdel-Fattah. Security forces detained Al-Baqer and interrogated him, as the prosecution decided to imprison him and Abdel-Fattah pending the case No 1356 Higher State Security, with charges of joining a terrorist group knowing its purpose and the misuse of social media to deliberately broadcast and publish false news and rumors that disturb public security and spread terror among the people.
The Egyptian authorities continued their practice of blocking websites, which they started in May 2017, as AFTE monitored the blocking of 40 websites, between instant messaging applications websites, and journalistic, political and social websites, thus increasing the number of blocked sites in Egypt to 546 sites. In one week in April, the authorities blocked 7 domains of the Batel (Void) campaign that was aimed at collecting signatures from citizens against the constitutional amendments, and throughout the week, whenever the campaign launched a new domain, the authorities blocked it hours after its launch.
Thirteen instant messaging application websites were blocked in September, including popular application sites such as Signal and Wire, and this was over the past few days prior to September 28, as the contractor and actor Mohamed Ali called for demonstrations in various squares on this day against President Sisi.
The law Regulating the Press, Media, and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation promulgated in August 2018 granted the Supreme Council for Media Regulation the power to block websites, and personal blogs and accounts whose followers number exceeds 5,000 people. Over the year the Supreme Council issued several decisions blocking some websites, with different reasons for blocking, including “breaches of the Code of Professional Honour and written standards and norms”. Even if the council doesn’t issue the blocking decision, it was the authority that responds to the questions that accompany the blocking of websites, as happened after the BBC Arabic website was blocked in September 2019 after covering the demonstrations that took place downtown and in a number of governorates on September 20. Whereas, when Makram Mohamed Ahmed, the head of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, was asked about blocking a number of news websites during that period, he suggested that “the Egyptian authorities have blocked some news websites due to the publication of inaccurate news about the demonstrations” and that he “has not yet been formally notified with of the names of the blocked sites”. The council did not announce the name of the entity that is supposed to “inform it officially” of the names of the sites and what does it mean by “the Egyptian authorities.”
Although the authority to block websites was granted to more than one entity by virtue of the laws regulating the press and media, and combating information technology crimes in August 2018, yet the Supreme Council for Media Regulation is the only entity that announces its use of blocking –sometimes. The Cyber Crimes Law grants the investigation bodies and the police the power to block websites directly, but no party has announced its decision to block any site or page, and the authority responsible for blocking more than 500 sites, before the laws were issued, remains unknown until the moment, in addition to sites that were blocked after the laws were issued. No entity, including the Council, has announced its responsibility for blocking the websites or the reason behind that.
The first announced decision to block a site was that of MO4 Network, as the Supreme Council issued a decision to block the sites affiliated with the aforementioned company for publishing topics “insulting the Egyptian state”. The incident goes back to December 3, 2018, when “Al-Fasala” website published an article under the title “UAE passport is ranked first in the world.” The article said, “You keep talking about the 7 thousand years of civilization.” This is what the Supreme Council for Media Regulation considered “something unprofessional and an unjustified insult to the Egyptian passport”. The council therefore addressed the General Investment Authority to freeze the activities of the MO4 Company, owner of Cairo Time, Cairo Zoom and Al-Fasla websites. The response of the Authority on December 13, 2018, was “the existence of the company has not been inferred”, and that “it does not fall under the umbrella of the Authority, and is not subject to the provisions of the laws it is expected to implement.”
By the end of the same month, the complaints committee of the supreme council recommended to block “Cairo Scene” website because it did not obtain a license from the council and because there was no license for the company owning the site. According to the Complaints Committee, the site contains “pornography, pornographic phrases”. The Committee confirmed that Cairo Scene is the second site to be blocked for the same company after the site of Al-Fasla for not obtaining licenses and for “publishing topics insulting the Egyptian state”, and that other sites of the company will also be blocked because of the lack of licenses, namely Cairo Zoom, Scene Arabia, Start Up Scene and Scene News; and already by the beginning of 2019, a number of the mentioned sites have already been blocked, including the site of the company itself.
It is worth mentioning that MO4 Network is the owner of Scene website, which was blocked on June 26, 2017 after publishing a video entitled “Army Cookies” in which some young people evaluated cookie products for various companies, including cookies of the army-owned Teeba Roz Egypt; the site was blocked in Egypt shortly after the video was published.
The Supreme Council for Media Regulation also issued a decree on August 24th, to block both Al Ekhbariya and Assabah News websites, because of “the practice of extortion by publishing false news harming the activities of Huawei company in Egypt, and violating the professional code of honor and written standards” according to the news published on the official website of the Council. The decree came after the recommendation of the complaints committee regarding the complaint filed by the legal representative of Huawei Company for technologies in Egypt, and the approval of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation. After investigating the complaint, the Committee recommended obliging the sites to remove the content that affects the company, and to compel the websites to apologize clearly and explicitly to the company. Despite these recommendations, the Council decided to block both sites for a period of 3 months, but according to what AFTE monitored, the decision was not implemented, and the websites operate normally and could be accessed.