Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but includes a clause stating, “It may be subject to limited censorship in times of war or public mobilization.” The government frequently did not respect this right. Government failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association. On June 10, a local human rights organization said authorities did not investigate police reports it filed after several attacks against its director between October and December 2019 that resulted in bodily injury to the director and theft of his car. On June 27, eight human rights organizations condemned a media attack against the director after he published a report on conditions in Gamassa Prison.
On February 16, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation issued executive regulations for the media law ratified in 2018. Among the regulations, newspapers are required to print their issues in Egypt at licensed printing houses registered with the council; news websites must host their servers in Egypt; newspapers must submit 20 copies of each printed issue to the council; and news websites and television outlets must keep copies all of published or broadcast material online for one year and submit a copy of their published or broadcast material to the council every month. The regulations also prohibit any recording, filming, or interviews in public places with the intention of broadcasting them on a media outlet without a permit issued by the council.
Freedom of Speech: Citizens expressed their views on a wide range of political and social topics. Nonetheless, the government investigated and prosecuted critics for alleged incitement of violence, insults to religion, insults to public figures and institutions such as the judiciary and the military, or violation of public morals.
Between March and July, authorities arrested at least seven doctors and charged them with membership in a banned group, spreading false news, and misuse of social media after they criticized the government’s response to COVID-19. Between October and December, three doctors were released pending investigation. The Doctors’ Syndicate protested the arrests and called for release of all the doctors. On October 1, the State Security Prosecution ordered the 15-day pretrial detention of prominent lawyer Tarek Jamil Saeed pending investigations of disturbing the peace, spreading rumors, and misusing social media after he criticized candidates for parliament. Saeed was released on bail on October 11.
On December 27, a criminal court ordered the release of housing-rights researcher Ibrahim Ezzedine with probationary measures. Ezzedine remained in detention until the end of the year. According to a local human rights organization, he was held without notice beginning in June 2019 after criticizing the government’s urban slums policies and appeared in November 2019 before the State Security Prosecution accused of joining a banned group and spreading false news.
A criminal court on September 13 renewed the 45-day pretrial detention of Mohamed Ramadan, who was arrested in 2018 for “inciting social unrest” after he posted a photograph of himself wearing a yellow vest akin to those worn by political protesters in France. After a court ordered Ramadan’s release on bail on December 2, the State Security Prosecution ordered him remanded into custody on December 8 on additional charges of joining a banned group based upon letters he sent while in detention.
The law provides a broad definition of terrorism, to include “any act harming national unity or social peace.” Human rights observers expressed concern that authorities used the ambiguous definition to stifle nonviolent speech and nonviolent opposition activity.
Between January and September, a local organization that tracks freedom of association and speech recorded 96 violations of the freedoms of media and artistic and digital expression. In June 2019 several political figures were arrested, including El-Aleimy and journalist Hossam Moanes, after they met to form the political Alliance of Hope to run in parliamentary elections. They remained in pretrial detention. On March 11, a misdemeanor court sentenced El-Aleimy to one year in prison for spreading false news and disturbing public peace as a result of a BBC interview in 2017. On April 18, a terrorism court added 13 defendants from the “Hope” case to the terrorism list, including former member of parliament and Social Democratic Party leader Ziyad El-Aleimy and activist Ramy Shaath, for alleged collaboration with the banned Muslim Brotherhood. On June 16, the Cairo Criminal Court turned down a challenge filed by Moanes against an August 2019 ruling to seize his money. On August 4, the Cairo Criminal Court upheld a freeze on the assets of 83 defendants in the case (No. 930/2019). On October 10, a criminal court ordered the release of four Alliance of Hope defendants, including activist Ahmed Tammam. On November 14, an administrative court heard the lawsuit filed by El-Aleimy to allow him to receive telephone calls and correspondence. Amnesty International reported he was being denied adequate health care by Tora Prison authorities even though his underlying medical conditions put him at particular risk if exposed to COVID-19.
On March 19, the State Security Prosecution ordered the release of 15 political figures in pretrial detention, including political science professor Hassan Nafaa and former president Sisi campaigner Hazem Abdel Azim. Nafaa was arrested in September 2019 with Hazem Hosni, spokesperson for Sami Anan’s 2018 presidential campaign, and journalist Khaled Dawoud. On December 27, a criminal court renewed Hosni’s and Dawoud’s pretrial detention for 45 days pending investigations of joining a banned group and spreading false news and ordered Hosni’s release. The State Security Prosecution ordered Hosni’s continued detention in a new case on November 4. On July 5, a criminal court overturned the public prosecutor’s 2019 decision to freeze Nafaa’s fixed assets and stayed the public prosecutor’s decision to seize his assets until the Supreme Constitutional Court rules on the constitutionality of Article 47 of the Antiterrorism Law.
On August 5, the writer and prominent leftist Sinai activist, Ashraf Ayoub, and his son Sherif, were detained in Arish city, North Sinai, and taken to an unknown location. According to a labor leader, Ayoub advocated for detainees. After 20 days, Ayoub appeared before the State Security Prosecution, which ordered his pretrial detention on charges of joining a terrorism group and spreading false news. According to local media, Ayoub’s son was released without charges in mid-August.
In May security forces arrested sports critic Awny Nafae while he was under government-imposed COVID-19 quarantine after returning from Saudi Arabia, according to local media. The arrest came after Nafae criticized the Ministry of Emigration for its handling of thousands of Egyptian nationals stranded abroad amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He was held in pretrial detention on charges of spreading false news, misusing social media, and participating in a terrorist group, but he was released in October.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media expressed a variety of views but with significant restrictions. The constitution, penal code, and the media and publications law govern media issues. The government regulated the licensing of newspapers and controlled the printing and distribution of a majority of newspapers, including private newspapers. The law does not impose restrictions on newspaper ownership.
More than 20 state-owned media outlets broadly supported official state policy. The National Press Authority holds the power to appoint and dismiss editorial leadership of state-owned print outlets. The governmental Egyptian Radio and Television Union appointed the heads of state-owned radio and television channels. Both state-owned and private media (including television and online journalism) occasionally broadcast and published mild criticism of government policies, but dominant media narratives supported the president and his policy initiatives.
The law considers websites and social media accounts with at least 5,000 subscribers as media outlets, requires them to pay a licensing fee of EGP 50,000 ($3,030), and grants the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (Supreme Council) broad discretion to block their content.
According to media reports, on April 21, the Supreme Council fined the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm for an op-ed written by its founder Salah Diab under a pseudonym. The article suggested that Sinai should have one governor with expanded powers to better govern the entire peninsula. The Supreme Council ordered the newspaper to remove the op-ed, issue an apology, and suspend Diab’s opinion pieces for one month. On May 12, the Supreme Council ordered media not to publish or broadcast any material under pseudonyms without the approval of the Supreme Council.
On April 12, authorities arrested Mustafa Saqr, owner of the Business News company, and the State Security Prosecution detained him for 15 days pending investigations on charges of colluding with a terrorist, spreading false news, and misusing social media. His arrest came after he published an article that discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.
As of December the Committee to Protect Journalists reported 27 journalists were imprisoned in the country.
During the year the government raided several newspapers, arrested employees, and released them shortly thereafter. On June 24, the security services arrested Noura Younis, editor in chief of the independent news website Al-Manassa and a former Washington Post correspondent. On June 26, authorities released Younis on bail pending trial on charges of creating a network account with the intent to commit a crime, possessing software without a license from the National Telecom Regulatory Authority, copyright infringement, and wrongfully profiting through the internet or telecommunication services.
On May 11, authorities arrested Al-Masry Al-Youm journalist Haitham Mahgoub, days after he published an article relating to the country’s response to COVID-19, according to media. Media reported that Mahgoub and his attorneys were not allowed to attend the June 7 hearing where the State Security Prosecution ordered his 15-day pretrial detention pending investigations of joining a banned group, financing a banned group, and spreading false news. Mahgoub was released on November 19 pending further investigation. On May 22, television stations broadcast confessions of four of 11 journalists and media workers whom the Interior Ministry claimed were part of a Muslim Brotherhood plot to produce false reports for al-Jazeera. Human rights lawyers challenged the confessions and their pretrial publication as illegal.
Violence and Harassment: According to media reports and local and international human rights groups, state actors arrested and imprisoned, harassed, and intimidated journalists. Foreign correspondents reported cases where the government denied them entry, deported them, and delayed or denied issuance of media credentials; some claimed these actions were part of a government campaign to intimidate foreign media.
On March 17, the State Information Service revoked the accreditation of a correspondent for the London-based Guardian newspaper, after it published a report addressing the spread of the COVID-19 in the country. On March 26, the Guardian reported that authorities forced the correspondent to leave the country.
On March 30, authorities ordered the detention of Mohamad Al-Eter, the Ultra Sawt website correspondent, for 15 days pending investigations. He was accused of joining a terrorist group, publishing false news, and misusing the online social networks. A court granted Al-Eter bail in May, and he was released on June 1 pending investigation.
According to Freedom House, multiple prominent digital activists and online journalists remained in prison. In many cases the individuals faced charges unrelated to their online activities, although their supporters argued they were arrested to prevent them from expressing their views. Spreading false news, affiliation with a terrorist or banned group, insulting the state, and inciting demonstrations were the prevailing allegations used to justify the arrest of human rights activists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Official censorship occurred. The state of emergency empowered the president to monitor newspapers, publications, editorials, drawings, and all means of expression and to order the seizure, confiscation, and closure of publications and print houses. The emergency law allows the president to censor information during a state of emergency.
In June the Supreme Council for Media Regulation stated that all media in any form had to use official sources to publish or broadcast any information about Libya, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the war against terrorism in Sinai, or COVID-19.
In June a media rights organization said that the government blocked thousands of websites, including 127 media websites.
The rising number of arrests for social media posts had a chilling effect on online speech. Some activists and many journalists reported privately they self-censored criticism of the government or comments that could be perceived as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, due to the overall anti-Muslim Brotherhood and progovernment media environment. Publishers were also wary of publishing books that criticized religious institutions, such as al-Azhar, or challenged Islamic doctrine. On August 15, the National Translation Center published its translation guidelines, including conditions that books it translates do not “oppose religion, social values, morals and customs.” According to media, professional writers and translators denounced the rules as a form of censorship. Online journalists were also reluctant to discuss sensitive topics such as sectarian tensions, sexuality, political detainees, military operations in the Sinai, and the military’s outsized role in the national economy.
Libel/Slander Laws: Local and international rights groups reported cases of authorities charging and convicting individuals with denigrating religion under the so-called blasphemy law, targeting primarily Christians but also Muslims. On June 21, the Alexandria Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court upheld the February 27 three-year sentence against activist and blogger Anas Hassan for “insulting religion and misusing social media.” According to a local human rights organization, security forces arrested Hassan in August 2019 for his Facebook page “The Egyptian Atheists” that a police report stated contained atheistic ideas and criticism of the “divinely revealed religions.”
National Security: The law allows government censors to block the publication of information related to intelligence and national security.
The law imposes a fine on any person who “intentionally publishes…or spreads false news.” The fine is many times the average annual salary of most local journalists. In 2018 authorities established hotlines for members of the public to call or leave text messages reporting fake news in either traditional or social media that endangers state security.
On March 10, the prime minister instructed relevant authorities to take all necessary, legal measures against anyone who broadcasts false news, statements, or rumors regarding COVID-19. On March 28, the Public Prosecution affirmed in a statement that it would address such “fake news” stories according to the law.
On March 18, security forces arrested Atef Hasballah, editor in chief of Alkarar Press website, at his home in Aswan following a critical post on his Facebook page questioning official statistics on the spread of COVID-19 cases in the country. He appeared before the State Security Prosecution on April 14, which ordered his 15-day pretrial detention pending investigation.
A local independent human rights organization reported that journalist Basma Mostafa was detained for nine hours while covering a crowd of citizens waiting for a COVID-19 test at the Ministry of Health’s Central Laboratories in downtown Cairo. Media reported Mostafa was arrested on October 3 while covering the death of Luxor Governorate citizen Ewais al-Rawy (see section 1.a.) and ensuing protests; Mostafa was released on October 6.
On February 12, local media reported that the Supreme Council for Media Regulations sent a warning letter to 16 news websites and social network accounts concerning posting “false news” regarding a reported COVID-19 infection case in Tanta City. It also included a directive to ban publishing any information other than the Ministry of Health’s official data.
Judges may issue restraining orders to prevent media from covering court cases considered sensitive on national security grounds. Rights groups stated authorities sometimes misused the orders to shield government, police, or military officials from public scrutiny. Citing safety and security, the government and military restricted media access to many parts of North Sinai.
On March 11, authorities released, with probationary measures, blogger Islam al-Refai, known as Khorm, who ran a satirical Twitter account with 75,000 followers. He had been held in pretrial detention since 2017, according to his attorney. NGOs continued to claim that authorities used counterterrorism and state-of-emergency laws and courts unjustly to prosecute journalists, activists, lawyers, political party members, university professors, and critics for their peaceful criticism.
The constitution prohibits the government from “arbitrarily” interrupting, disconnecting, or depriving citizens seeking to use all forms of internet communications.
Telecommunications services and internet service providers are regulated by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority under the 2003 Telecommunication Regulation Law. The law does not guarantee the independence of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. The government centralized the internet infrastructure and fiber-optic cables, allowing considerable state control over internet access, including restricting and disrupting user access and censoring online content. Law enforcement agencies restricted or disrupted individuals’ access to the internet, and the government monitored social media accounts and internet usage, relying on a law that only allows targeted interception of communications under judicial oversight for a limited period and does not permit indiscriminate mass surveillance. The public prosecutor prosecuted individuals accused of posting “insulting” material.
On August 25, a criminal court in a terrorism circuit sentenced in absentia the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Bahey Eldin Hassan, to 15 years in prison for publishing false news and insulting the judiciary. In March Hassan, who lived abroad, learned that a criminal court in a separate case sentenced him in September 2019 in absentia to three years in prison on charges of spreading false news and tweeting phrases that undermined and discredited the judiciary. Hassan criticized the Public Prosecution on Twitter in 2018.
The counterterrorism law criminalizes the use of the internet to “promote ideas or beliefs that call for terrorist acts” or to “broadcast what is intended to mislead security authorities or influence the course of justice in relation to any terrorist crime.” The law also authorizes the public prosecutor and investigators to monitor and record online communications among suspects in terrorism cases for a period of 30 days, renewable in 30-day increments. The law does not specify a maximum period. On October 8, several UN human rights special rapporteurs in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated the country was using “terrorism charges” and “terrorism circuit courts” “to target legitimate human rights activities,” silence dissent, and detain activists during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The cybercrime law states, “The relevant investigating authority may, when the evidence indicates that a website is broadcasting phrases, numbers, pictures, videos, or any promotional material, that constitutes one of the crimes enshrined in this law, and poses a threat to national security or endangers the security or economy of the country, order the blocking of the website.” The government issued implementing regulations for the law on August 27. On May 20, several local human rights organizations accused the government of restricting access to information during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Media reported that authorities arrested a group of women in June and July who posted videos on the TikTok social media app. On July 27, a Cairo Economic Court sentenced TikTok influencers Haneen Hossam and Mawada Eladhm and three others to two years in prison and fined each for “violating family values” based on the cybercrime law. An appeal was scheduled for January 10, 2021. On August 18, a criminal court upheld an administrative decision to freeze the assets of Hossam and Eladhm.
On August 6, authorities released TikTok influencer Manar Samy on bail pending an appeal. On September 19, a Tanta Economic Court upheld her sentence of three years in prison with hard labor for “inciting debauchery and violating family values” for content she posted on social media. Authorities also arrested members of Samy’s family for resisting authorities. On September 30, a Cairo Economic Court sentenced TikTok influencers Sherifa Rifaat, known as “Sherry Hanim,” and her daughter, Zumoroda, to six years in prison and fined each for assaulting family values and inciting prostitution. A court was scheduled to examine the appeal in January 2021.
There were reports the government temporarily blocked access to internet messaging applications.
The government attempted to disrupt the communications of terrorist groups operating in Sinai by cutting mobile services, internet, and sometimes landlines.
The law obliges internet service providers and mobile operators to allow government access to customer databases, allowing security forces to obtain information regarding activities of specific customers, which observers noted could lead to lack of online anonymity.
There were reports authorities monitored social media and internet dating sites to identify and arrest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
On June 25, a local media rights organization reported that since May 2017 the state had blocked at least 547 websites, including at least 127 news websites. The blocked sites included international NGOs, local human rights NGOs, and numerous virtual private network services. Some blockages appeared intended to respond to critical coverage of the government or to disrupt antigovernment political activity or demonstrations. On April 9, authorities blocked the newly established Daarb website run by human rights defender Khaled al Balshy, one month after its launch.
In 2017 the news website Mada Masr sued the government seeking information on why it was blocked. In 2018 the Court of Administrative Justice referred the case for technical review by the Justice Ministry’s Authority of Experts. This review was pending at year’s end.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were reports of government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. The removal of references to the country’s 2011 and 2013 revolutions from high school history class curricula continued after a 2017 decree from the Ministry of Education and Technical Education. According to media and local rights groups, a degree of self-censorship, like that reported by nonacademic commentators, existed when academics publicly commented on sensitive political and socioeconomic issues. University faculty members and Ministry of Education employees (including teachers) needed security agency approval to travel abroad for academic or professional purposes. Faculty and officials at public universities and research centers also must obtain Ministry of Foreign Affairs permission to travel abroad for any reason. Some public universities restricted campus visits of foreign speakers or delegations or required a faculty chaperone for delegations of university students traveling to the United States.
On May 8, authorities at the Cairo International Airport confiscated the passport of Walid Salem, a University of Washington doctoral student, preventing him from traveling. Authorities arrested Salem in May 2018 while he was conducting political science dissertation research on the Egyptian judiciary and released him in December 2018 with a travel ban and probationary measures pending trial. On February 22, the State Security Prosecution canceled the probationary measures and released him under guarantee of his place of residence.
There was censorship of cultural events. A prime ministerial decree issued in 2018 declares it unlawful to hold a special event or festival without “prior license from the Ministry of Culture and liaising with relevant state entities.” This requirement added to existing regulations, under which organizations must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Culture’s Censorship Board, as well as permits from the Interior Ministry and the relevant artists’ union for concerts, performances, and other cultural events. The Ministry of Culture must approve all scripts and final productions of plays and films. The ministry censored foreign films to be shown in theaters but did not censor the same films sold as DVDs.
On February 16, the Musicians Syndicate banned Mahraganat music, a popular street-music genre, in public and prohibited any dealings with Mahraganat singers without the syndicate’s permission. This decision came two days after a Cairo concert where Mahraganat singers used what the syndicate considered inappropriate words. A few hours after the decision, the Tourism Police prevented Omar Kamal from holding a concert in a Cairo hotel. The syndicate and the Department of Censorship of Artistic Works filed police reports against a number of Mahraganat singers.