Egypt: Where a Facebook Post May Land You in Prison for a Decade (2)

Rana Mamdouh
Egyptian Journalist

Kafka meets Orwell in Egypt’s surreal brave new world, where a like, share or post on Facebook may land you behind bars for “supporting terrorism” or “insulting the regime.” We present five case studies.

Part Two of Two.

Amr Nohan: A Victim of Mickey Mouse

Days before the end of his compulsory military service, Amr Nohan published a picture of President Sisi in the form of Mickey Mouse on his Facebook account, which caused his expulsion from the military in August 2015. A military court then sentenced him to three years in prison. He was released from prison in September 2018, and went on to practice as a lawyer.

However, on June 10, 2019, security forces arrested him again, as he was defending a suspect in the Karmouz police station. He was charged with “joining a terrorist group” and “using social media to spread fake news.” He is still being held in pretrial detention.

In Alexandria’s Bahri region, not far from the Corniche, I had met with Nohan’s family on September 28, 2017, just before him completing his military sentence.

Amr Nohan

“Amr’s crime is his opinion,” said his brother Walid, stressing that he wrote his opinion on his personal Facebook page only days before ending of his conscription. The military court specified the charges against Nohan as:

1. Sharing a mocking picture of the President of the Republic on his personal Facebook account.

2. Publishing a post on his personal Facebook page containing the phrase: “Down with Sisi, Morsi and Mubarak.”

3. Publishing a satirical pamphlet on the President of the Republic.

4. Publishing a leaflet insulting the President of the Republic.

5. Publishing a leaflet gloating about the bombings near the National Security Agency headquarters. 

The court stated in its ruling that the Military Security Department, “one of the agencies of the Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance Department within the Ministry of Defense,” had received information that Nohan had transcribed phrases and posted pictures on Facebook aimed against the armed forces and the regime. 

Some pictures showed him in military uniform, which is considered as “disobeying military orders.” The 1966 Military Justice Law classifies such an act as a crime punishable by imprisonment.

The photo Nohan was imprisoned for.

“Expressing an opinion while performing military service may be a crime punishable by law,” said Nohan’s mother, who works as a teacher in the United Arab Emirates and only visits Egypt during her summer holidays. “But did the people in charge of this country ever think about how to punish its youth without alienating them and making them hate their country?”

Amr’s brother video: 

We tried to talk to Nohan after his release from prison in 2018, but he told us in a text message that he was “mentally, physically or financially” not ready to return to prison again.

“My opponent in the case was the President of the Republic, and I don’t know if he is still my opponent,” he explained “[I have to] control my tongue because if I get locked up again, I will die.”

His brother Walid did not close Amr’s Facebook page after his first arrest, saying: “Facebook is an arena for exchanging views and ideas, not just for pictures and songs.” 

Amr too kept his page after his first release from prison. However, following his second arrest, he decided to close it foregood.

Mohamad Yahya: Street Children to Overthrow the Government

Facebook posts about their satirical theater performances landed six actors in jail on charges of creating chaos in the county and acting against the regime. Aged between 21 and 38, they in December 2015 had formed the theater troupe Street Children.

They toured Egypt with various street performances and made short “selfie” videos, in which they would talk in a sarcastic way about social legacies and contradictions in society. Then the idea developed to raise political issues and publish them on the group’s Facebook page.

After a year in jail the six were released from jail and we agreed on a date for an interview and recording. Yet, on the specified date none of them showed up. This was repeated several times, until we finally met up with just one of them, Muhammad Yahya, on November 13, 2017.

The court case papers indicate that, three days before the six actors’ arrest on May 9, 2016, information was made available to an National Security Officer from “confidential, yet reliable sources” stating that some artistic elements in the governorates of Cairo and Giza, calling themselves the Street Children, were causing chaos, opposing the regime and seeking to destabilize it by preparing a plan that aimed at inciting the masses against the state and its institutions, and pushing them to participate in marches and demonstrations.

An investigation by the same officer indicated that, in order to implement the plan, the troupe members held regular meetings, during which they agreed to launch a systematic Internet campaign on social media and YouTube, showing videos that distorted the words of patriotic songs by replacing them with words offensive to the state and its institutions.

Muhammad Adel, Muhammad Jaber, Mustafa Zain, Muhammad Yahya, Izz al-Din Khalid and Muhammad Desouki allegedly also agreed to escalate the pace of their Internet activities to mobilize the masses of citizens by spreading the news that the regime was to give up lands in exchange for economic aid after announcing the demarcation of its maritime borders with Saudi Arabia.

The evidence included in the Street Children’s file was limited to one CD with four videos of the troupe: Obaid al-Bayda, Abu Deborah, The Renaissance Dam and The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: 7,000 Years of Civilization.

The six actors remained in prison until the North Cairo Criminal Court on September 7, 2016, accepted their appeal against the decision to renew their detention. However, the case is still pending and was not officially closed by the time of publishing this investigation.

After their release from prison, the troupe members decided to close their Facebook page and stop working together. 

“I was fired from my job because of two words on Facebook,” said Yehia, who in addition to his acting used to worked at the Ministry of Culture. He confirm the Street Children no longer existed. 

“It is a beautiful memory,” he said. “But the detention was very painful and none of us have recovered from it yet.”

Mohamed Said: Victim of One Live Broadcast

Sixteen months after his arrest, Mohamad Said is still being held in pretrial detention, after the Supreme State Security Prosecution in September 2019 filed four charges against him: participating in a terrorist group, creating a page on social networking sites to promote the ideas of that group, spreading fake news, and joining a group to organize a demonstrations without being licensed.

Before the September 20 demonstrations, Said was not politically active. He had a store in his house in Arbaeen Square in Suez selling electrical goods. According to his lawyer Hoda Abdel-Wahab, he had the bad luck that Al-Jazeera and Muslim Brotherhood’s media cited his Facebook page. This is what prompted his arrest and his exposure to torture inside Port Said prison. 

Unlike the more than 3,000 people arrested at the time, Said was not released and remained in pretrial detention until November 3, 2020, when the Cairo Criminal Court decided to release him under precautionary measures. 

However, the decision was not implemented. In fact, days later the Supreme State Security Prosecution opened a new case against him. Again he was charged with “joining a terrorist group.” Hence, he is still in prison. 

Attorney Hoda Abdel Wahab’s video:

Said’s Facebook page is still available and bears witness to the fact that his “crime” consisted of nothing but using Facebook’s live broadcast technology to document what was happening right in front of his house.  

Technicalities and Legalities

It may be easy for the authorities to track political activists or opponents, but how can it extend its control over ordinary people who number over 40 million Facebook users? 

According to Hassan Al-Azhari, a lawyer at the Technology and Law Community (MASSAR), the answer is: “collective surveillance.” 

Azhari explained that the authorities have been able to mass monitor Facebook users since 2016. Targeting is random, which means the security services monitor anyone’s use of certain words or hashtags to determine one’s political orientation. The Ministry of Interior then uses the data to establish cases against Facebook users.

The Ministry of Interior’s desire to collectively monitor social networking sites first became apparent on June 1, 2014, when Al-Watan newspaper published the ministry’s call for companies to submit plans for building an open source intelligence system called the Social Networks Security Hazard Monitoring System.

The ministry wished to buy the latest software to monitor social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn, Viber and WhatsApp. In addition to identifying people posing a threat to society, the aim was to permanently modernize the ministry’s security system

At a time when human rights organizations feared these programs could be used to monitor spaces related to freedom of expression and social networking, the Minister of Interior’s Assistant for Media Affairs, Major General Abdel Fattah Othman, strongly denied by phone in a TV interview, that the desired programs would not aim to limit freedom of expression. 

Nevertheless, ten human rights organizations on September 22, 2014, sued the ministry in an attempt to suspend and cancel the tender. According to lawyer Azhari the ministry purchasing such applications will enable it to monitor social networks and spy on user activities, which violates the constitutional right to express an opinion.

On February 28, 2017, the Administrative Court ruled not to accept the case, as the judge qualified the case to be as a challenge to the tender contract, which by law is limited to the parties to the contract. He therefore did not address the legality of the ministry actually using such systems and programs.

“Facebook crimes” do not stop at writing a comment or posting a photo or video. They include simply interacting with posts on other people’s accounts.

The Ministry of Interior did not publish any further information about the tender or its outcome. As part of this investigation we tried to contact Major General Abdel Fattah Othman and sent him several text messages with questions, yet never received a response.

However, an American newspaper in September 2017 revealed that Systems Engineering of Egypt, a firm linked to the American company Blue Coat that specializes in Internet monitoring, won the tender.

According to the report Egypt: A Repression Made in France, issued by the International Federation for Human Rights in 2018, the company provides the Egyptian authorities with a so called deep packet inspection system which offers “in-depth content examination” and is able to intercept content and personal data on mobile phone conversations, as well as monitor a variety of apps.

According to the same report, the ministry started using the system in August 2016, which according to several technical experts allows for systematically monitoring Internet communication by bypassing encryption. 

Enter The Law … 

Despite the absence of a specific law defining what is permitted and prohibited in digital publishing, the authorities rely on a series of punitive articles regarding ordinary publishing found in the Penal Code, Emergency and Anti-Terrorism Laws and telecom rules and regulations. 

According to Ahmed Othman, a lawyer at the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, which provides legal support to defendants in Facebook cases, Egypt in 2018 also adopted the Anti Cyber and Information Technology Crimes Law, as well as the Law on the Organization of Press, Media and the Supreme Council of Media, 

Based on articles in the Penal Code, Othman said, Facebook users are generally confronted with such charges as: spreading fake news, insulting the president or state institutions and/ or belonging to a group founded in contravention of the law.

As an example, he pointed at the arrest of over 75 people in September 2017 for posting photos on Facebook of them at a gay party and raising the rainbow flag. The prosecution charged them with joining a group founded in violation of the law.

“Facebook crimes” do not stop at writing a comment or posting a photo or video. They include simply interacting with posts on other people’s accounts. For example, Othman said, the security services arrested Karam Zakaria, a member of the April 6 Movement, because of his “like” on a post on the Green Wave page, which “urges citizens to be positive.” 

The most serious charges are those related to the Anti-Terrorism Law issued in August 2015, in addition to two other laws that facilitate the prosecution of social media users.

The first is the Law on the Organization of Press, Media and the Supreme Council of Media issued on September 1, 2018, which provides sweeping powers to the Supreme Council of Media, including the power to block journalistic pages, social media accounts and personal web pages with over 5,000 followers for a variety of reasons. 

The ministry wished to buy the latest software to monitor social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn, Viber and WhatsApp. In addition to identifying people posing a threat to society, the aim was to permanently modernize the ministry’s security system.

Issued in August 2018, the Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes Law obliges Internet Service Providers in Egypt to save and store user data for a period of three months, and submit them to the authorities for considerations regarding national security.

Othman said the arrest of some 10 members of the Constitution Party and Strong Egypt Party parties in April 2019 was based on them publishing Facebook posts critical of the government’s constitutional amendments.

In December 2019, the Supreme Administrative Court used the same law to allow for the dismissal of an employee for publishing a Facebook post it considered to be an assault on Egyptian family values ​​and a violation of the private life of others. Apparently, the state’s mass surveillance of people’s personal Facebook pages is not considered a violation of one’s private life.

This investigation was completed with the support and under the supervision of the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ)

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