Egypt: Crackdown continues amid controversial land deal

Blocking of websites is part of a campaign to silence public dissent before presidential elections, analysts say.

Egypt protest islands to saudi
Hundreds demonstrated against the Tiran and Sanafir deal when it was first signed by the president last year [File: EPA]

Egypt’s recent blocking of 64 websites that are not aligned to state media’s narrative is part of the government’s crackdown on civil society, analysts have said.

With presidential elections scheduled to take place next year, and amid the controversial Tiran and Sanafir deal that was approved by parliament on Wednesday, analysts say that this is the government’s attempt at neutralising resistance and eliminating potential presidential candidates.

The blocking of news websites was described by UK-based rights group Amnesty International as an “onslaught against media freedom“.

“With this move, the Egyptian authorities seem to be targeting the few remaining spaces for free expression in the country. It shows just how determined the authorities are to prevent Egyptians from accessing independent reporting, analysis and opinion about Egypt,” said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International’s North Africa Campaigns director in a statement on Tuesday.

“The authorities must immediately stop arbitrarily blocking news websites.”

Among the websites that have been blocked on Sunday are Albedaiah, which is run by independent journalist Khaled elbalshy, as well as Elbadil, and Bawabit Yanair.

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The latest move to cut off news websites came days before the Egyptian parliamentary committee was set to cast its final vote on the transfer of two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

Defying a lower court ruling that nullified the deal, Egypt’s parliament voted in favour of ratifying the deal.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi signed the controversial deal in 2016, which received much backlash from the public. Hundreds demonstrated against the move in the streets of Cairo last year in what was the first mass protests to take place under Sisi’s reign. All demonstrations in Egypt are banned unless they are court-approved.

Journalists and activists continued to criticise the deal, which was open to debate in parliament earlier this week, calling for its termination on the basis that the islands were under Egypt’s sovereignty and accusing Sisi of selling land in return for Saudi aid.

According to local media reports, a sit-in on the steps of the Journalists Syndicate in Cairo turned violent on Tuesday night, when police clashed with dozens of protesters, briefly arresting eight of them.

Among those arrested were prominent journalists and activists who have been rallying support from the people and calling for the end of the Tiran and Sanafir deal for months.

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, elbalshy said that when his news website, which is critical of the government, was cut off, most of its coverage was centred on the heated debate around the islands transfer deal.

READ MORE: Egyptian court jails scores for islands protests

The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a non-government organisation that tracks and monitors the blocking of websites, said that the Egyptian authorities have now blocked 64 websites since May 24, including sites that grant access to blocked web pages, such as VPNs.

According to local media, the number of VPN-users increased in recent weeks following a government campaign to cut off licensed news websites.

What started with 21 cut-offs, escalated in recent weeks with authorities claiming to be combating “terrorism and extremism”. However, according to the monitor, there was no evidence presented to the public in support of these claims. Among the websites that were banned is one of the country’s most dissident independent websites, Mada Masr.

A prominent local financial website, Al Borsa, was also blocked along with other international news outlets.

Sisi is widely expected to run for a second term, but opposition candidates have increasingly been silenced by the government. Last month, ex-presidential candidate and opposition leader Khaled Ali, was arrested pending investigations.

Ali, a human rights lawyer who had suggested he might run for president in the upcoming 2018 elections, was the main lawyer to bring a case against the government for agreeing to sign the Tiran and Sanafir deal.

According to Mohamad Elmasry, associate professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, the reasons behind the intensification of government repression are two-fold.

“First, the Sisi government realises that the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir islands represents a potential existential threat for Sisi, because there is so much widespread opposition to the transfer – including from liberals – the government can’t bill opposition as a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy.”

Therefore, added Elmasry, the Sisi regime felt it important to restrict public expression and ensure a singular narrative about the transfer of the islands.

READ MORE: How Sisi is using the law as a tool to restore tyranny

Commenting on the upcoming presidential elections, Elmasry said: “Sisi’s inner circle fears that an opposition candidate could emerge, using the transfer of the islands to Saudi Arabia as evidence that Sisi is, at best, unqualified to lead the country for a second term, and, at worst, a traitor.”

Similarly, Allison McManus, research director at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told Al Jazeera that restricting media space “the latest step in widespread efforts to establish control of the public domain by criminalising, prosecuting and penalising an ever-broadening range of activity”, referencing Egypt’s “anti-terrorism” law, which “paved the way” for the blocking of these websites.

“Other efforts to exert control have been seen in the passage of a new law to regulate NGOs, requiring oversight of their function and finances by the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defence, and General Intelligence, among others,” she added.

Egypt declared a state of emergency in April following deadly church attacks the killed nearly 50 people. The state of emergency grants the president powers that including censoring, monitoring and halting forms of communication.

The reasons and timing behind the intensification, said McManus, are not necessarily linked to the threat of “terrorism”, but by a combination of factors including Sisi’s low approval ratings in advance of the 2018 presidential elections.

“Despite justifying the worsening restrictions as necessary ‘security’ measures, terrorist attacks in the country have not abated, but have been increasingly deadly and, more recently, sectarian in nature,” she said.

In the middle of constant waves of violence and worsening economic conditions, Egyptians seek to express their concerns, despite having few means of doing so.

“This has created a vicious cycle by which, in an effort to maintain a facade of legitimacy, the government then carries out ever more repressive measures,” McManus further explained, but said these measures will likely “backfire in the long run”.

Source: Al Jazeera