Egypt is making it harder for its citizens to communicate with each other, and the outside world.
While the world celebrated the release of the Al-Jazeera journalists imprisoned in Cairo, Egyptian authorities appear to have been using a quieter but just as deadly method of suppressing freedom of expression and political dissent — shutdowns and kill-switches on voice calling apps Skype, Viber and WhatsApp have been reported in Egypt since the beginning of October.
Digital activists in Egypt are reporting that VoIP appears to be blocked for users of at least three telecom providers. VoIP is Voice over Internet Protocol — essentially the digital technologies used for voice communication over internet using telephones. Skype, WhatsApp, and Viber are some of the most widely-used VoIP. Talking via internet is low-cost or free — making it a very appealing technology in emerging market countries like Egypt, particularly for long-distance or international communication.
Using the internet for long-distance calling in Egypt is already illegal, punishable by jail or fine, and Skype has been blocked since 2010. News site Egyptian Streets reported that the telecom companies Vodafone, Mobinil and Etisalat, and the National Telecommunications Regulation Authority (NTRA) have been passing the buck — each claiming that the other is responsible. Given the increased authoritarianism of the Egyptian government in recent months, it seems likely that NTRA is indeed behind the shutdown. Although it is claimed to be applied only to 3G networks, users are reporting problems using Skype from computers as well as mobile phones.
Apart from making communication a bit more difficult, why does this matter?
Shutdowns are not the only signs of suppression of freedom of expression in Egypt. Since the ousting of elected President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 by army General Adbel Fattah al-Sisi, political dissent has effectively been outlawed. Last week Facebook user Amr Nohan was sentenced by a military court to three years in prison for posting a drawing of President Al-Sisi with Mickey Mouse ears. He was charged with “attempting to overthrow the regime”. Al-Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed were jailed and convicted in 2014 in a case that received global criticism. Their release in September 2015 came after extreme pressure and high-profile interventions including from human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. The fate of ordinary Egyptian citizens who find themselves saying the ‘wrong thing’ may be less positive.
The move to close down methods of cheap and easy communication is an attempt to suppress flows of information, as well as organization and reporting of vital or sensitive information. A healthy civil society thrives on active citizen participation and with spaces for legal communication constantly being re-defined by authorities, opposition to the regime may be increasingly hamstrung. Asked about the VoIP shutdowns, Deji Olukotun, Senior Global Advocacy Manager at Access Now said, ‘”Internet shutdowns are a crude instrument that clearly violate the right to freedom of expression. They prevent people from accessing vital emergency services and cut off crucial forms of communication. It’s a worrying trend and telcos need to push back against increasing government demands. Shutdowns don’t help victims, protect rights, or restore order.”
The role of the internet in facilitating the Arab Spring in 2011 is likely well-known to the military government in Egypt — who by targeting both high-profile media and grassroots communication appear to be taking no chances. This month, Tunisian activists in Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet who brokered the peace deal in Tunisia in 2013 received the Nobel Peace Prize — broadly interpreted as a message of encouragement from the global community. Hopefully this message is reaching Egypt too.