Analysis

Egypt's War on 'Rumors' Threatens to Kill the Free Press

A sweeping new law targeting what Egyptian President al-Sissi calls 'the greatest threat facing the country' will further harm Egyptian civil rights

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi attends a military ceremony in Paris, France, October 24, 2017.
Charles Platiau/AP

No more and no less than 21,000 rumors have been monitored by the authorities in Egypt over the past three months. This report is not a rumor but a “fact,” which Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi revealed last week in a meeting with the graduates of the military academies.

A “rumor,” in the language of the regime, is any report that is incorrect and whose goal is to create instability, increase despair, undermine the hopes of the people and destroy the state from within. This is not a dictionary definition but Sissi’s carefully fortified interpretation. “This is the greatest threat facing the country. Its goal is to cause peoples to destroy their countries from within,” he warned.

FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2011 file photo, "We are the men of Facebook" is written on the ground as anti-government protesters gather in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt. The staunchly pro-government Egyptian parliament passed a bill Monday, July 16, 2018, targeting popular social media accounts that authorities accuse of publishing ג€œfake news,ג€ the latest move in a five-year-old drive to suppress dissent and silence independent sources of news.
Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP

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So who is spreading the rumors? The enemies of the people from within and without, of course. Against such enemies there is no choice but to wage a war of extermination. None of the academy graduates dared to ask, of course, how the government had collected these rumors and whether it monitors the Facebook pages of private citizens? Does the government have agreements with internet providers? The question of the contradiction between the 21,000 figure and the statement of a member of the Egyptian parliament, who said the number of such rumors is actually 60,000, was never raised either.

The new law is among the harshest ever against the press in Egypt. It includes granting a new authority, the Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, the power to close down any website, Facebook account or blog with at least 5,000 followers – without a judicial order – if it violates the new law. It is enough for the council to decide that the statements posted are incitement to violence, are offensive to religions, call for discrimination between citizens or spread hatred or false information – in order to justify the closure.

The definition of a violation is as usual foggy and leaves the members of the council a great deal of room for interpretation, and greatly limits the suspects’ ability to defend themselves. For example, the Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media has banned reporting on the findings of the investigations conducted in the Children’s Cancer Hospital. The council and government were angered that the report included details of financial improprieties, misuse of donations and failed management by the hospital’s director Sherif Abu El-Naga. This is a government hospital that the Health Ministry is supposed to oversee, and when such scandals are exposed the authorities try to protect themselves. This time, despite the threat of the new law, many websites ignored the ban on publication.

FILE - In this March 30, 2011, file photo, a mural depicting a man in shackles and the Facebook logo and a mobile phone is seen on the wall of the University of Helwan arts academy in the Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo, Egypt. The staunchly pro-government Egyptian parliament passed a bill Monday, July 16, 2018, targeting popular social media accounts that authorities accuse of publishing ג€œfake news,ג€ the latest move in a five-year-old drive to suppress dissent and silence independent sources of news.
Manoocher Deghati/AP

The new laws for the regulation of the media also state that publishing the picture of a person without their permission, even if the picture was taken in a public setting – such as photographing a minister on the street – could lead to a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,800 to $5,600) and six months in prison. Whoever hosts the website publishing such information, the internet service provider, could be liable for a fine of up to 200,000 Egyptian pounds and up to two years in prison.

The law also states that anyone who offends “local custom,” for example by supporting the right of a woman to decide to have an abortion, could be imprisoned. These new decrees require internet providers to preserve the browsing history of all customers for 180 days. The authorities did not really need more laws to place limitations on the media. Egyptian law, including the criminal code and the war against terrorism laws, provide a great deal of ammunition for the police and prosecutors against critics of the regime. But the meteoric development of the alternative media, before but especially after the Arab Spring, have pushed the regime to invent more precise and threatening legal methods to use against “the greatest threat,” in Sissi’s words.

This is how, despite the section of the constitution that forbids imprisonment for publication and even though in 2014 a bill was introduced to implement this section, Sissi decided that the war against the “threat to the nation” requires abrogating it and allowing the imprisonment of journalists and internet users.

Last year the American government froze $95 million of the U.S. economic aid it gives Egypt, along with $195 million of the military aid, because of what it called serious damage to civil rights in the country. Last week the U.S. State Department announced that it planned on restoring these funds – even though the human rights situation has not improved and the new media laws will further harm Egyptian civil rights. The State Department did not provide an explanation for the decision, except for the remarks of a senior official who said the aid had been reinstated in response to steps taken by Egypt on specific U.S. concerns, without specifying what those steps were.

After all, human rights are not something that really interests U.S. President Donald Trump – whether in Egypt, Turkey or in Israel.