CAIRO — Maryam Nour is scared to post anything on Facebook.
The 20-year-old Egyptian university student traces her fear to three examples from the last few months of fellow Egyptians landing in jail for posts gone awry. Egyptian poet Fatma Naoot lost her final appeal in an Egyptian court, which ruled that her post criticizing the slaughter of animals during the Eid al-Adha sacrifice feast constituted contempt of Islam and disturbing public peace. Three Coptic Christian students were sentenced to five years in prison for “contempt of religion,” over a 30-second video in which they were filmed imitating a Muslim prayer. And student Abdallah Azmy was suspended from Mansoura University when a friend grabbed his phone and posted a status update to Azmy’s Facebook page that was critical of the university.
“People my age are supposed to post anything they want to Facebook. My cousin in Chicago posts all the time about her ugly teacher and mean boyfriend. But if you live in Egypt, anything you post can get you arrested,” said Nour, who spoke to BuzzFeed News by phone from Alexandria. “Egyptians don’t get to have the internet that the rest of the world has.”
Egypt’s love affair with Facebook reached its peak during the 2011 protests that ousted longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak from office. The Facebook pages used to organize the protests and exchange information among activists led some commentators to call the events of 2011 the “Facebook revolution,” while in Egypt Facebook accounts quickly replaced email addresses and phone numbers on business cards.
According to one survey published last year by a Cairo-based research group, the eMarketing Egypt Online Competitiveness Intelligence, there are roughly 16 million Egyptians on Facebook, making up one-quarter of all users from the Arab world. The same report found that 48.1% of people who use the internet in Egypt are Facebook users. The platform has become so popular that many in the country use the words internet and Facebook interchangeably, so that for many Egyptians, Facebook is the internet.
The changes of the last five years, however, have seen President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sweep into power in an Egyptian army–led coup, and clamp down on any form of protest in the country. NGOs have been shut, journalists intimidated, and hundreds disappeared into secret prisons.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was once celebrated as a hero of the Egyptian revolution, for creating a platform on which people were encouraged to freely share their thoughts with their community. But in Egypt, no one was prepared for what would happen when that community turned on them.
Since the fall of 2014, at least 95 Egyptian nationals have been arrested based on statements they posted on social media sites, according to Amr Gharia, a privacy and internet freedom advocate in Egypt. Human rights NGOs in Egypt who spoke to BuzzFeed News by phone said the number was likely much higher, as they believe police were using information gleaned from Facebook to detain and then disappear people they suspected of supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement.
“In at least four cases we have heard of parents who say that their sons were taken from their home by police who said they had posted something online… without giving evidence of what was posted online or why it constituted a crime,” said one NGO worker, who asked not to be named due to the frequent arrests of NGO workers who criticize the government in Egypt. He said that in the cases his NGO was tracking there was no documentation of the arrests, making it impossible to say if a Facebook post was what prompted the police to act, or if they had other intelligence that was then supplemented by what they found on the Facebook pages of those they arrested. “These young men were all disappeared, and their families still don’t know if they are being held a jail somewhere or what crimes they are even being charged with.”
Om Mohamed was arrested from her home on the night of October 13, 2015. Her family asked BuzzFeed News not to use her real name, as she has since been released from prison and doesn’t want to draw attention from Egyptian authorities. Om Mohamed was one of several Egyptians running a Facebook page that Egyptian authorities said advocated for protests. Though the page is still up, activity there has largely fallen silent since her arrest.
“Damn Facebook and Twitter and all these social media sites that bring us nothing but trouble,” said Om Mohamed’s cousin, who spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity for the same reason. She said that she was angry that Facebook hadn’t done more to protect her cousin or at least warn her about the dangers of creating a Facebook page that called for protest in Egypt. She said she would support the government if they found a way to stop access to Facebook from Egypt, saying, “I hope that the government just closes it all down.”
“Closing down Facebook,” or, more specifically, limiting access to Facebook from Egyptian IP addresses has already been suggested by Egyptian lawmakers, though the technical workarounds involved in restricting access to the site would be significant. For example, when an Egyptian court issued a verdict banning porn sites in May 2015, the government was never able to enforce the ruling. It was easier for the government to block Facebook’s “Free Basics”program, which offered free limited internet access. Just ahead of the anniversary of the January 25 protests in Tahrir Square, Egypt’s government announced that it was ending the service due to a licensing issue, though human rights groups said it was just part of the wider crackdown on Facebook.
Egyptian lawmaker Gamal Abdelnasser told BuzzFeed News that he had already succeeded in passing a law that would make a call for protests on Facebook punishable by immediate imprisonment, though when BuzzFeed News looked into the legislation it appeared it was still in a committee and would need to be voted on again before becoming a national law.
“The law I have suggested, which the Egyptian parliament has agreed to, says that anyone who writes a post calling for protest should be imprisoned immediately,” said Abdelnasser. “It also says that if you accuse anyone in a post without solid proof of that accusation, you can also be sent to jail.”
Calling Facebook a “conspiracy from the West” Abdelnasser said he admired countries like China, where Facebook was banned.
“Any loser can go to his boss and ask him for something, like a raise in his salary, and then, if the boss says no, that loser can write a post on Facebook calling for a protest and in no time other losers will join him,” said Abdelnasser, who added — without explanation — that the law was for the “sake of the economy.”
In a speech in Cairo earlier this week, President Sisi blamed social media users for the bad press his administration has recently received.
Unspecified “enemies” were using social media platforms to sow strife in Egypt, said Sisi, who pointed to accusations that Egypt was obstructing the investigation into the murder of a young Italian student researcher in Cairo and to various news reports that claimed Sisi had “sold” two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia in exchange for financial support.
Sisi told the public that their “unbridled talk” was “damaging [the] country, by God, by God, by God.”
“I don’t know what he expects. He can’t control the conversation on Facebook the way he can on al-Ahram,” said Nour, the university student, referring to the state-owned Egyptian newspaper. At her university, she added, everyone got their news from Facebook, rather than any of the traditional Egyptian newspapers or television networks.
And while calls to protest have dimmed on Facebook amid the government crackdown, this week a new protest movement was launched over the two Red Sea islands over which Sisi had acknowledged Saudi rule. A Facebook page titled "The Land is the Honor" called on Egyptians to take to the streets in several major cities after noon prayers on Friday. Many noticed it was the first time in months such a massive call to protest had been launched on Facebook.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry has already released a statement blaming the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement for the protests, writing that the ministry “urges the citizens not to follow these instigating calls and warns against any attempt to violate legitimacy. Out of its responsibility to maintain the safety and security of the citizens, the Ministry will take all necessary and decisive legal measures to preserve security and stability.” Several Egyptian officials have also issued calls for citizens to ignore the Facebook pages urging protests.
“It just feels out of touch for a government to say that they want people to stay on message or not have discussions on Facebook or whatever. It’s become part of our culture,” Nour said.
Her mom and aunts, however, disagree. Last weekend, while Nour was on the phone with BuzzFeed News, her mom could be heard yelling for her daughter to take down a post in which she criticizes renovations to a local historic building.
“My aunt saw the post and called my mom and told her, ‘You better get your daughter to take it down right away. People might get the wrong idea,’” said Nour. “Welcome to today’s Egypt.”
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
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