Internet censorship in Egypt and staying secure online

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Egypt is a North African nation with a population of 97.6 million people. It is a nation that suffers from high poverty levels – with 27.8 percent of the population currently living below the poverty line.

In addition, the minimum wage for people employed in the public sector is just $174 USD per month, and there is currently no minimum wage for people working in the private sector. This makes the average annual income in Egypt around $1500 dollars.

Low average incomes and high poverty rates negatively affect internet connection rates in the country. Only 45% of citizens have an active internet connection and those that do encounter a heavily restricted and censored internet.

Political overview

Egypt’s political system is loosely considered a semi-presidential Republic. The president is elected every four years for a maximum of two terms. The president is the head of state and the head of the government, presiding over a unicameral parliament. However, the nation has been under authoritarian control since 1981.

The current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, took power in 2013 thanks to a military coup that ousted former president Mohamed Morsi (who ruled for just two years since the ousting of the dictator Hosni Mubarak).

At that time, the Egyptian constitution was suspended. Since then, el-Sisi has been governing Egypt with an authoritarian grip. In 2018, he won the presidential election with a 97% majority that could not be verified by independent international monitoring groups.

The country is dogged by unfair elections that manipulate the vote, intimidate opposition candidates, arrest and imprison citizens with dissenting opinions. In addition, the country’s legislative and judiciary is corruptly controlled by el-Sisi, any attempts at political dissent are quashed using force and intimidation. Extreme prison terms and death sentences are handed down with impunity.

Terrorism is prolific in the region. In recent years, attacks by the Islamic State (IS) have led to more than 350 people being killed in Tanta, Alexandria, and at a Sufi Mosque attack that is described as the biggest terrorist attack in Egyptian history.

Censorship

Egyptian media is made up solely of pro-government outlets. This is primarily due to the closure of opposition-based publications following the 2013 coup. Since then, a number of new TV stations and newspapers have been launched that are directly controlled by el-Sisi and the military.

For the people of Egypt, this means an inability to escape el-Sisi’s propaganda bubble. It is dangerous for citizens to communicate political opinions or beliefs of any kind openly – with almost complete self-censorship around topics such as religion.

Journalists who would dare to criticize or report outside of the tight confines permitted by the government face dismissal or worse. Journalists also face heavy fines if they dispute official accounts of attacks by militants and action taken by the military in response.

Egypt was again named one of the three worst jailors of journalists in the world in the 2018 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Egypt is an extremely dangerous place top hold power to account. 

A law passed in 2017 by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation made it illegal for the media to report on any LGBTQ topics, aggravating discrimination against those minorities in the process.

Online censorship is prolific, with hundreds of websites blocked each year. This censorship was emboldened during the run-up to and since the 2018 presidential election. Blocked websites include every local independent news source, influential blogs, websites for political movements, and the websites of both local and international human rights organizations. Websites that are deemed to support terrorism are also restricted.

The government also periodically blocks access to YouTube, social media services, messaging apps, and privacy enabling services such as VPNs, Tor, proxies, and tech websites. 

Foreign news websites such as the Huffington Post – and the popular blogging site Medium – are also blocked. Since 2016 Signal, WhatsApp, and other encrypted messengers are officially blocked in the country. 

All religiously incompatible content is censored, including websites containing nudity or pornography, gambling, drugs, LGBTQ topics, and anything else deemed to be incompatible with the current regime.

Finally, countless individuals are arrested and imprisoned each year for expressing dissenting opinions in blogs or on social media. New anti-terrorism laws passed in 2018 allow individuals accused of inciting or supporting terrorism to be detained without a warrant for an undefined period of time.

Surveillance

In Egypt, all ISPs are required to retain consumer metadata and browsing habits on behalf of the government. Failure to process requests for data can result in a two-year prison sentence.

An anti-terrorism law passed in 2015 extends surveillance capabilities by removing citizens' right to privacy and permitting intelligence authorities and the police to monitor internet traffic and social media activity.

In 2018, Egypt’s telecoms minister announced that they intended to set up a rival to Facebook that would allow the government to more easily remove unwanted content and share valuable social media data with the authorities. If such a service is rolled out, and Facebook is blocked, this would extend the nation’s ability to perform surveillance.

Leaked documents have revealed that Egypt’s government has purchased elite hacking tools from international firms such as Blue Coat, Nokia Siemens Network, and Hacking Team.

These sophisticated surveillance tools permit the government to take control of citizen’s computers remotely to eavesdrop on conversations, decrypt certain messages, perform keylogging, and performs surveillance via people’s cameras and microphones.

The government also takes a harsh line on encryption, with encrypted messengers and privacy tools all blocked within the country in order to stop people from attempting to bypass mass government surveillance.

In 2018, the government announced plans to force Uber and other ride-sharing firms to provide access to their servers in order to allow the government to perform location tracking on citizens.

Copyright protections in Egypt are a relatively modern concept with laws only passed in 2002. Although they protect both national and international copyrights, they have been criticized for failing to address and resolve certain important copyright issues.

The authorities appear to work hard to catch citizens actively engaging in profiting or enabling mass copyright piracy. Despite this piracy remains high at around 69 percent of content consumed. Raids that occurred in 2017 led to the imprisonment of three pirates charged with illegally offering premium content services.

In order to stop people from pirating content, ISPs enforce blocks on streaming and torrenting sites within the nation. VPN websites are also blocked, making it hard to gain access to the tools needed to get around those blocks.

Written by: Ray Walsh

Digital privacy expert with 5 years experience testing and reviewing VPNs. He's been quoted in The Express, The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & many more. 

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