Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi over the weekend ratified a new law, subjecting prominent social media personalities to censorship and prosecution over a host of vaguely-defined offenses.
The new law applies to social media users with more than 5,000 followers, subjecting them to censorship and legal liability for propagating “false news,” inciting violence or hatred, inciting discrimination, defamation and insulting religion.
It also tightens restrictions on the press.
The Egyptian leader — who has seen his popularity dwindle over economic hardship — has pursued an intensifying security crackdown against his critics.
The latest media law, now in effect, cements the role of the Supreme Press Council as the ultimate supervisor over the press and cyber activity. The Council, in existence for only two years, now has the authority to oversee content and impose binding judgments that come with significant financial penalties and potential bans.
Social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers will now be held to the same rules set for media platforms. Prominent personalities now risk seeing their accounts blocked by the government.
Egypt has witnessed growing discontent in recent months, largely due to mounting economic woes that have hit not only the poor, but also the crucial middle class. One response of the authorities has been to scrutinize and penalize social media activity.
Shady Abou Zeid, a young comedian who posted satirical videos with allusions to social and political issues on his Facebook page, was arrested in May this year. He remains in prison on charges of belonging to an outlawed group and propagating false news.
Another prominent blogger, Wael Abbas, who gained fame for unveiling police brutality through his blog in the mid 2000s, was arrested in the same month and faces with similarly vague charges often used to clamp down on the opposition – “inciting against the state and propagating false news.”
Since assuming the presidency in 2014 through a contentious power grab after overthrowing Egypt’s Islamist government, Sisi has come down hard on opposition to his authority. His government has imprisoned political opponents, outlawed protests and increasingly stifled the cybersphere.
Sisi explicitly expressed his discontent with online criticism in July, after an Arabic hashtag translating to #Leave_Sisi was widely circulated to protest the security crackdown and economic difficulties.
In a television appearance, Sisi railed against unidentified “people of evil” that he often mentions in his public talks.
“They have made us become a nation in need and in poverty and when I try to take you out of [that state], you respond with the hashtag #Leave_Sisi. Shouldn’t I be upset about this? Yes I should,” he said.
War on terror
For Sisi, criticism of the state is a dangerous act that weakens Egypt’s position in its war against terror.
The former defense minister, now in his second presidential term, has focused his rhetoric on the danger of terrorist groups active in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which the state has been engaged in a war with since 2014.
He has also taken harsh economic measures, lifting subsidies on several essential goods and, in 2016, floating the local currency.
The float of the Egyptian pound caused its value to drop almost by half, which has had punishing effects on the most vulnerable sections of society as well as the middle class.
The social media law comes as part of an armament of newly-introduced legislation that grants the state more control over the media and the public and cyber sphere.
A previous law, ratified in August, criminalized a range of cyber activities. Those who post content to an online platform deemed in violation of “family principles and values upheld by Egyptian society,” for example, now face six months in prison and/or fines ranging between LE 50,000 and LE 100,000 (roughly US$2,800 to US$5,500).
The government has used intimidation, imprisonment and censorship to force a single pro-Sisi, anti-terror rhetoric in all public platforms, blocking access to almost 500 websites since 2017.
Reporters without Borders ranked Egypt 161 out of 180 countries in its latest Press Freedom Index, calling Egypt “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists.”