Last week, privately owned newspaper Al-Watan reported that the “Revolutionary Punishment” movement posted a warning on its website urging Egyptian judges to forgo their involvement in cases against Brotherhood members or leaders to save themselves and their families.
Homegrown Islamist youth resistance groups angered by former President Mohamed Morsi’s removal from power or the repressive actions of the “coup regime” — groups like the Revolutionary Punishment movement — might use social media accounts to incite violence against security forces or claim responsibility for attacks they purportedly carried out.
These are all set-piece cases of what the Egyptian government and security apparatus say they aim to combat through mass surveillance and restriction of online space.
Under a cybercrime bill reportedly now awaiting the approval of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, more internet users in Egypt could soon face severe prison sentences and fines.
Despite months of speculation and rumor about the new bill, state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram reported at the beginning of May that the Cabinet has already approved it — meaning it just needs Sisi’s approval to become law.
The stated raison d’etre for the law is to combat extremism and false news. Minister of Communications and Information Technology Khaled Negm recently told privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm that the bill aims to combat the “dissemination of rumors and the promotion of extremist thought on social networks,” while at the same time protecting the “security of both the citizens and the state…[and] preserving privacy.” The bill would give judges, for the first time, “the power to deliver deterring sentences for internet crimes such as cyberterrorism, blasphemy and sexual offences,” Negm claimed.
Yet a copy of the draft, obtained by Mada Masr this week, reveals that the new bill could usher in unprecedented punishments for online activity far away from “extremist thought.” Although it is not known if this draft is the same version sent to Sisi, and the Communications Ministry was unavailable for comment, the 28-article document seen by Mada Masr details extended prison sentences and fines for a range of crimes, some of which go way beyond the aims of the law as stated by Negm — including “harming national unity” or “defaming a heavenly religion.”
The crimes highlighted in the bill include trespassing on a private ICT system or website, or a government system or website; intercepting or accessing private communications data; hacking content from an individual, private or state entity; online fraud; producing websites in order to incite crimes and carrying out Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks.
On the whole, punishments are harsher when an individual is found to have committed a crime against the state or a corporation. Article 11, for example, states that “using a fraudulent email or website to harm private persons” can result in a minimum two-year jail sentence. Doing the same to “harm the government” would likely result in a prison sentence of between seven and 25 years.
A new procedure is laid out in Article 19, which highlights the legal process necessary for blocking websites. The authorities are able — in urgent cases — to block a website that contains “any words or figures, pictures or movies, or any propaganda material that threatens national security” and obtain permission later, according to the draft.
Article 22 of the bill, on the other hand, is a catch-all clause meant to target anyone found “committing any crime in the cybercrime act with the aim of harming public order; endangering safety and security or society; endangering the life and security of citizens; preventing authorities from undertaking their duties; suspending the Constitution, laws or regulations; harming national unity or societal peace; defaming a heavenly religion; [and] assaulting rights and freedoms enshrined by the Constitution.”
According to the leaked draft, anyone charged with Article 22 could face either life imprisonment or a prison term in a maximum-security jail.
“Almost everything is about incarceration,” says privacy advocate Amr Gharbeia, adding that the bill “takes sanctions to a whole different level.”
Mohamed al-Taher from the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) also told Mada Masr that “what is happening now is an attempt to control freedom of speech and internet privacy.”
But according to digital security advocates and researchers, there is more to the bill than fighting terrorism or restricting online freedoms.
Ramy Raoof is one of the co-founders of Mushtarak, a tech space running workshops on digital security. Raoof believes the government intends to “develop a special law for cybercrimes — from their point of view, because the current laws don’t fit all the crimes and the current legal definition doesn’t include the new, advanced technology of communications, and they need a special set of laws to justify surveillance, which doesn’t exist.” The new bill is one step in that direction, but not the first.
In mid-December, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb signed the High Council for Cyber Security into existence. Headed by the Communications Ministry, the High Council for Cyber Security includes key state bodies (including the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense) and has been tasked with “securing the infrastructure and networks of government agencies against cyber attacks,” according to Sherif Hashem, deputy chairman of the National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority for Securing Cyberspace, who was quoted by Aswat Masriya in December.
Since December, Mehleb has also decreed for authorities to look into amendments to national security laws related to the Internet and cybercrime, and set in motion a policy of installing surveillance cameras throughout Egypt.
Raoof says that this six-month timeline represents a “huge shift” from the government’s previous approach — conducting mass surveillance while denying that surveillance is taking place — and one meant to construct a “publicly announced framework” of surveillance. Now it is out in the open and publicly acknowledged in a way not seen before, he says.
At the same time, Egypt already has a series of laws that can be used to prosecute Internet users. The Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code both provide provisions. “There are many laws — such as criminal laws — that can be used, without the need for anti-terrorism laws,” explains Taher, adding that many have been prosecuted for online incitement already.
Gharbeia believes that the Penal Code is “quite enough” to cover the crimes highlighted in the new draft. “Intercepting telecoms or assaulting the privacy of communications; damaging private property; impersonation; fraud; incitement — all of these are covered in the Penal Code,” said Gharbeia.
“The legal framework, save for blocking, is there.”
However, recent charges brought against internet users demonstrate the main impact of the new bill.
Karim al-Banna was sentenced to three years prison or a LE1,000 bail in January for insulting Islam through a series of Facebook posts. After being assaulted in the streets for the posts, and then going to the police station to report the incident, Banna himself became the suspect. His own family contributed to the investigation by handing over books and other “incriminating” material to investigators.
Under the new bill, Banna could now face life imprisonment under Article 22, rather than three years under different laws.
“Under this law, Karim al-Banna would get a life sentence or up to 20 years in maximum security prison. This is the only change,” explains Gharbeia. He compares this to the case of Abu Islam, a Salafi sheikh and televangelist who was handed a five-year sentence for defaming Christianity on his TV show, suggesting that online activity is increasingly penalized when compared with public space or other media.
“So Abu Islam would get five years and Karim would get a life sentence. Why? Because Karim used Facebook, not live television,” he adds.
Gharbeia argues that the new bill builds on a growing legal infrastructure meant to deal with online threats, perceived or real — similar to legislation elsewhere in the world that has previously used the threat of terrorism to justify mass surveillance; legislation like the US Patriot Act.
“Just like with the Patriot Act,” he says, “there was a perceived or real threat that was used to pass legislation that has put in place the massive surveillance that we’re seeing now.”
Gharbeia adds, “We are in a very similar moment in Egypt now.”