The Internet was not censored under President Hosni Mubarak, but his regime kept a sharp eye on the most critical bloggers and regularly arrested them. At the height of the uprising against the dictatorship, in late January 2011, the authorities first filtered pictures of the repression and then cut off Internet access entirely in a bid to stop the revolt spreading. Journalists were also beaten. Mubarak’s fall is a chance to entrench greater freedom of expression, especially online.
Landmark release, prosecutions and arrests under Mubarak’s rule
Release of Kareem Amer
Blogger Kareem Amer was freed on 15 November 2010, ten days after expiry of his three-year term after more than four years in prison.# He had been sentenced on 22 February 2007 for supposedly inciting hatred of Islam and insulting President Mubarak. On his blog he criticised the government’s religious and authoritarian abuses and he was arrested a first time in 2005. He also often wrote about discrimination against women and criticised the Sunni Al-Azhar University where he had studied law. Many support groups were set up around the world, encouraged by the Free Kareem Coalition, to demand his release. Reporters Without Borders awarded him its Cyber-freedom Prize in December 2007.
Prosecution of bloggers and human rights activists
Bloggers and human rights campaigners have been hounded and prosecuted in recent months but the cases were dropped. They included Gamal Eid, head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Ahmed Seif El Islam Hamad, founder of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre (HMLC), and bloggers Amr Gharbeia and Wael Abbas.
A netizen too inquisitive about military matters
Netizen Ahmed Hassan Basiouny was sentenced to six months in prison by a military court on 29 November 2010 for putting secret defence documents and information about the army online. He had created a Facebook page in 2009 called “Enrolment and recruitment in Egypt and answers to questions from young candidates,” which provided information and advice about how to join the army. Basiouny was not involved in any subversive or harmful activity and in fact encouraged people to join up. His conviction showed how far the army was an off-limits topic, whether comment was favourable or critical.
Khaled Said, victim and symbol of impunity
Khaled Mohammed Said, a 28-year-old human rights activist, was murdered in Alexandria on 6 June 2010. He was beaten to death in the street after being arrested in a cybercafé by two plainclothes policemen, according to the café’s owner. Local human rights organisations said he has posted online a video about police corruption. The authorities claimed he died of a drug overdose. Two policemen, Mahmud Salah Amin and Awad Ismail Suleiman, were arrested and put on trial for killing him, but they escaped from prison in January 2011. The trial was due to resume on 6 March.
Said became a symbol and several thousand people demonstrated for police to be punished for all brutality and violence. The protest was very strong online because of the problems of demonstrating in the street. Wael Ghonim, Google’s marketing director for the Middle East and North Africa, who was prominent in anti-government protests in February, admitted he ran a Facebook group called "We Are All Khaled Said,” which has nearly 100,000 members.
Some saw the protests about Said as precursors of the Egyptian uprising.
Bloggers fight censorship over electoral fraud
Censorship was increased during the December 2010 parliamentary elections in a bid to conceal the fraud involved. Some websites were blocked for hours at a time, including that of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan Online) and its online forum Al-Moltaqa. Seven other sites were intermittently disrupted over 24 hours: shahid2010.com, shababelikhwan.net, sharkiaonline.com, amlalommah.net, nowabikhwan.com, egyptwindow.net and ikhwanweb.com.
The authorities, mainly the Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC), which reports to the cabinet, was in charge of this censorship, working with Internet service providers TEDATA, ETISALAT and LINK DSL.
Bloggers were very active during the election, organising networks to gather and put out news. They went to polling stations to watch the voting and take photos and videos. Some who saw fraud were pestered by police and sometimes briefly detained.
The Internet and bloggers in the revolutionary fervour
Threats, filtering, and cutting off the Internet
When Egyptians took to the streets on 25 and 26 January 2011, inspired by the Tunisian revolution, the authorities did their best to keep the media away to prevent them taking and distributing pictures. They disrupted mobile phone networks at demonstration sites in Cairo on the first day.
Twitter was blocked at the same day, along with the video-streaming site bambuser.com. The hashtag #jan25 (named after the protests) was very active. Facebook has for several years been widely used by Egyptian dissidents and civil society to put out news and mobilise people, especially around the 6 April protest movement. Access to Facebook was blocked intermittently on 26 January, according to ISPs.
Slower connections were also reported, especially to online newspaper sites Al-Badil, Al-Dustour, Al-Masry Al-Youm, Al-Badil and Al-Dustour, which were later blocked. The Al-Masry Al-Youm site was seriously disrupted and was down all of the afternoon of 25 January. These online media outlets played a key part in reporting the events in Tahrir Square.
The bloggers and the demonstrators who became citizen-journalists were very important in covering the protests. They tweeted from Tahrir Square, posted videos on YouTube, and linked up to the Bambuser.com site to report on the situation, including the brutalities of regime supporters who came to the square.
The government, feeling overwhelmed, cut off all Internet access and mobile phone service late on 27 January, with only the small ISP Nour able to continue for a while longer.
But netizens found many ways round the blockage to get the news out. Foreign ISPs offered them modem connections, since fixed phone lines were still working. French ISP French Data Networks gave out a phone number (+33 1 7289-0150) available through a user-name and the password “toto.” Sweden’s Telecomix offered another number (+46 85 000 999 0) and the password “telecomix.”
Google and Twitter joined the battle against censorship by setting up a system of voice tweets. Netizens could call foreign numbers +1 650 419-4196 or +39 0662-207294 or +97 316 199-855 and leave messages that were instantly posted on Twitter followed by the hashtag #egypt.
Internet access was restored on 2 February after being down for five days. The OECD put the country’s economic losses resulting from the cut-off at $90m.
At least 75 journalists have been physically attacked and 81 imprisoned since 2 February, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Blogger Asma Mahfouz, who urged Egyptians to take to the streets on 25 January, told BBC TV on 5 February that she got many phone calls from Mubarak supporters threatening to kill her and her family. Blogger Kareem Amer was arrested on 7 February on his way home from a demonstration and was not released until three days later.
New disruptions of mobile phone networks and Internet access from Tahrir Square occurred on 7 February 2011.
After the revolution, freedom of expression?
Egypt is preparing for constitutional reforms but the future of the revolution seems uncertain, with tension between the army and the protesters who forced Mubarak out. New clashes occurred in Tahrir Square on 25 February. The army apologised afterwards to the demonstrators, calling them “sons of the revolution” on its Facebook page, perhaps a sign that times have changed.
The heavy filtering at the height of the revolution has reportedly ended.
The Internet in Egypt is in full expansion and people who had never taken part in politics are joining online discussions about the country’s future and various causes. They are no longer afraid to speak up.
But some bloggers are still worried about continued action by state security police against former regime opponents and dissidents.
The government and the army must improve online freedom of expression and openly dismantle the Mubarak regime’s online spying apparatus and surveillance system. The Egyptian revolution has just begun and bloggers, the standard-bearers of free expression, remain alert.