Analysis

Egypt's New Internet Law Blocks Sites Over 'National Security Concerns'

One of the sites under fire offers a platform for discussions of sexuality and feminism

Raising pride flags in Cairo at a concert last September.
JAMAL SAIDI/REUTERS

What is national security, wondered Yasser Abdel Aziz, a leading member of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights. “If I were to publish something saying that the president is not a native Egyptian, would that harm national security?” At a meeting last week in Cairo about the new government-proposed law for oversight of online media and social networks, Abdel Aziz explained that the law is not only meant to prevent insults and shaming, but that it’s main objective is actually to block serious criticism of President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi and his government. The law’s dozens of clauses include major penalties, such as a year in prison or fines of tens of thousands of Egyptian pounds, for anyone who publishes information on the internet that could harm national security.

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The term “national security” is not elaborated upon at all, and it is left to be exclusively interpreted by government investigators, who will also be able to freeze the activity of any website or social media account for 72 hours without a court order. So you should probably hurry and take a look at a unique website that is liable to be shut down soon. The ikhtyar website (“Choice”) is devoted to discussions by lesbians and transgender people, but not only. Straight women, gay men and straight men also take part. The main purpose is to discuss gender theories and “to better understand the world we live in,” according to the site’s editors. The ideological mentor of the site and its participants is the American gender scholar Gloria Anzaldúa (1942-2004), whose academic work was devoted to researching on the culturally and socially marginalized person’s relationship with his or her self and surroundings.

From the ikhtyar website.

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The ikhtyar website logo.

Feminist literature and gender studies at universities in Egypt and throughout the Middle East are not a popular choice of subjects with students. Not only do such studies not provide a “practical education,” they also come with a dual stigma attached. Someone who studies gender is immediately suspected of having “perverted” sexual tendencies, a characterization that could potentially get him into trouble – given the law against harming public morals. But leaving that aside, gender studies is also looked upon as subversion against the proper order in a paternalistic society. The most advanced gender studies program in Egypt is found at the American University in Cairo. It is a master’s program that is part of the School of Public Policy, and centers mainly on feminist theories, as well as some test cases in the Middle East.

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The university’s enrollment office would not provide information on the number of students in the program, but a spokesperson did say that the studies “is not meant for Egyptian students alone, but for students from abroad as well,” implying that the program could not really justify its continuation if it had to rely solely on Egyptian students. The main academic journal devoted to the study of gender in Arab countries is not published in an Arab country; it is published by Duke University Press. One important aspect of the ikhtyar website is that it presents the latest research, such as a study on the concept of respect for the body in the Egyptian family. This study examined the way that people aged 18-29 relate to their “ownership” of their bodies, and what part the family and society play in this. It looked at things like the influence of religion on attitudes toward the body, female circumcision, the importance of virginity, the meaning of “shame” and what kind of sexual knowledge young people acquire at home. The study’s conclusion was clear: Gender studies is not just a theoretical academic field; it is vital to changing the public discourse and for expanding people’s understanding about their rights concerning their own bodies.

But the site is not concerned with academic studies alone. In a section called “Writing from the Closet,” women writers, some who go just by their first name and others who prefer to remain anonymous, talk about the difficulties they face because of their sexuality, especially given their upbringing in a rigidly patriarchal society.

In one very moving piece, entitled “The honor for which you disfigured me,” the anonymous author writes that ever since her father died, she had been conducting a dialogue with him about various things that bother her about the way she was brought up. But then her lover “asked me last night why I always am slow to reach an orgasm. I didn’t answer right away. For the next 10 seconds, the events that happened to me 12 years earlier flashed before my eyes. I saw myself as the young girl who was delighted when her mother decided to let her wear a short skirt one day, contrary to custom. I remember the breeze that passed between my thighs and played with my clitoris for the last time in my life as I was on my way to the clinic. I went along very happily, and with a sense of urgency. My mother tricked me when she said we were going to cut out a harmful part of my body, something that would cause me to get diseases if I didn’t get rid of it. I was very eager to get rid of this accursed organ, I was terrified of disease, I trusted my mother.”

The awful memory doesn’t end there, but this is likely the first time the writer has ever been able to tell her story and share it with millions of other women whose similar suffering is still kept trapped in their memories.

The new internet law is liable to kill off this site and others. After all, someone has to safeguard national security, public order, morality and custom.