Freedom House, in its annual report on internet freedom for 2021, revealed the deterioration of freedom of expression around the world, including Egypt, which ranks the eighth worst country in the world included in the report. Freedom House is a US-based non-governmental organisation dedicated to democracy, political rights, and civil liberties. Its report, issued for the 11th consecutive year, evaluates internet freedom in 70 countries, representing 88 per cent of the world’s internet users.
The report covered the period from June 1, 2020 to May 31, 2021. It ranked countries based on factors that measure obstacles to internet access, content restrictions, and violations of user rights, assigning a score (from zero to 100), with zero being completely not free and 100 being totally free. Egypt’s score of 26 out of 100 puts it on the “Not Free Online” list, a list that includes many repressive countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and Iran.
Egypt’s assessment in the “Freedom on the Internet” report has continued to deteriorate rapidly over the past few years. After it had achieved 37 degrees in the 2016 report, it declined to 26 degrees in 2019 and has remained stable at this assessment since then, making it the eighth worst country in the world in terms of internet freedom. This poor rating is due to the fact that internet freedom and the rights of its users continue to deteriorate, as the government continues to control internet infrastructure and fibre-optic cables to create highly manageable choke points. In addition, nearly all of Egypt’s telecommunications infrastructure is owned by the state-owned Telecom Egypt, which facilitates the authorities’ ability to suspend internet access or reduce speed, as what happened during the January 25, 2011 revolution.
The Egyptian authorities continue to block news websites as part of a broad targeting campaign on freedom of expression and civil society activity. During the period from May 2017 to November 2020, at least 600 websites were blocked, including 100 independent news and media websites. The government is using the Supreme Council for Media Regulation to manipulate the media landscape by blocking independent news websites and forcing publishers to remove online content deemed critical of the government.
For example, in April 2020, the Supreme Media Council banned the electronic and paper versions of the private newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, and imposed a number of penalties on the newspaper, including financial penalties, a disciplinary investigation by the Syndicate of Journalists, and a criminal investigation, due to a series of articles about Sinai written by the newspaper’s owner, Salah Diab, under a pseudonym. In May 2020, the Supreme Council of Media Professionals banned journalists and writers working in newspapers and websites from using pseudonyms without its prior written consent. In June 2020, the Supreme Media Council imposed censorship on print and electronic media covering the issues of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, COVID-19, and the conflicts in Libya and the Sinai Peninsula. The council stressed the need for the media and social networking sites to be satisfied with publishing “official statements” when talking about these issues.
Security services target internet users who spread criticism of government policies. In September 2020, 25 citizens were arrested for objecting to decisions to demolish their unregistered homes. They were accused of “joining a terrorist group, spreading false news, using social media accounts for the purpose of committing a crime and inciting assembly and assault” on public officials.
Over the past years, the state has enacted many legislations that limit internet freedom, the most recent of which is the Personal Data Protection Law issued in July 2020. While it is the first legal guarantee of its kind in Egypt, there are some banks that may negatively affect user privacy, most notably the exclusion of entities. The security and databases acquired by the Central Bank and its affiliated institutions prevent the provisions of the law from applying to them.
The law stipulated the establishment of a data protection centre that has the right to develop and implement policies, strategic plans and programmes concerned with data protection. It gives them the right to take possession of the databases without censorship or legal restriction. The Data Protection Centre lacks independence through its almost complete affiliation with government agencies and the absence of any representatives from civil society, as well as the open powers of the security services.
Egypt’s poor assessment in the Internet Freedom Report reflects the extent of the regime’s fear of internet users, since social media contributed to organising the popular protests that led to the January 25, 2011 revolution, the regime has become very apprehensive about the internet and its users, so it sought by all legal, illegal and security means to limit online freedom to restrict any future action against it.