After Cracking Down On Protesters, Will Egypt Go After Online Activists Next?

“Once they arrest whoever they can at protests, they will come after the Facebook and Twitter users next,” one activist said.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

CAIRO — Sherif Adeeb calls himself a “social media activist.” The 19-year-old does little outside of Twitter and Facebook these days, after recent months saw many of his friends and relatives arrested for taking part in protests in support of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“I can be as effective online as I can in the streets,” Adeeb said, speaking in a Cairo internet café he frequents. “And online I feel I can’t get arrested.”

That has been the feeling among pro-Brotherhood Twitter activists who have flocked to promote their movement online since the military ouster of the Mohamed Morsi government on July 3, 2013. Many say the Brotherhood has always had a strong presence on social media, but say that the movement’s ability to organize and rally supporters online has increased in the wake of Egypt’s crackdown on the group.

Now, many are concerned that Egypt’s army could step up efforts to monitor online activists, and issue arrest warrants against Egyptians by using evidence from their Twitter and Facebook accounts. Prominent bloggers like Alaa Abdel-Fattah have already been arrested based on their online activities, but their cases remain rare. Authorities have yet to crackdown on the hundreds of Facebook accounts linked to the Brotherhood movement, or on blogs and news sites that promote Brotherhood activities in Egypt.

Adeeb said he watched with worry when Turkey banned Twitter earlier this month, afraid it would spur the Egyptian regime to do the same. He was also concerned, he said, by a recent move by Saudi Arabia to declare the Brotherhood a terrorist group — prompting some from the country’s prolific Twitter community to remove images supporting the Islamist group from their user profiles.

Egyptian authorities, he added, were still busy quieting protests, after declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist group earlier this year.

“But sure, I’m worried that once they arrest whoever they can at protests, they will come after the Facebook and Twitter users next,” Adeeb said.

“They already watch us online, but it is not in a very serious, a very thorough way,” said Tawfiq, a student activist with the Brotherhood who told BuzzFeed last year about his efforts to organize protests through Facebook. “Now we are worried that they will begin to get serious about this, and come after us.”

Tawfiq, who spoke to BuzzFeed by phone, said he had begun masking his presence online. In recent months he has learned more about online security, and has begun using browsers such as Tor that mask his location when he posts calls for protests.

The response to the currently trending Twitter hashtag “elect the pimp” has only convinced him further of his need to be more careful online.

The hashtag, which was created as a response to the announcement by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that he was running for president, has been tweeted more than 60,000 times in the last four days.

The story of the hashtag spread quickly. The BBC appeared to be fooled by a report on the satirical Pan Arabiya news site, which suggested that Egyptians would actually be arrested due to the hashtag. The BBC was then forced to retract much of the report, stating that while the hashtag had raised eyebrows, there was no attempt to arrest any Egyptians involved.

Indeed, no one has been arrested, but Egyptian TV presenters and government officials have called for the arrests of those using the hashtag to mock Sisi.

“The hashtag [Sisi is a pimp] is being supported by the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood movement,” Egyptian CBC host Khairy Ramadan said during his weekly show this weekend. He went even further and suggested that Egypt should block Twitter, the way Turkey recently had.

“Suddenly a second hashtag appeared that says: ‘elect plus curse word.’ This hashtag is number one now. Why? Because it is supported by the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood,” said Ramadan, according to the news site Al Arabiya. “The easiest thing the government could do here is close Twitter or close YouTube. Of course the youth will ignite fire and say that we are back to dictatorship if this happens. But no one will pay attention to the fact that [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has done so, and that after Erdogan closed Twitter due to his leaks, he also closed Youtube.”

The creators of the hashtag, an anti-Sisi group, explained on their Facebook page that they intended it to offend Sisi, and hoped it would be used in protests by Brotherhood supporters against the Egyptian government.

A spokesman for Egypt’s interior ministry would not comment on the hashtag, but said in a statement that Egypt was not currently considering banning Twitter.

One army official, who spoke to BuzzFeed on condition of anonymity, said that while Egyptian security forces currently monitor online activity, they do not have the resources to thoroughly catalogue everything happening online.

“We are a large country, with a large population. At the moment, we do have specific well-known individuals we watch who have taken part in illegal activities in the past, but we do not have the ability to watch what everyone is saying,” he said.

According to the Arab Social Media report,, released by the Dubai School of Government, there are more than 3.7 million Twitter users in the Arab world, the vast majority of them in Saudi Arabia, with Egypt a far second. There are more than 54 million users of Facebook, of which Egypt constitutes about one quarter. The report also said Egypt had the highest number of new Facebook users since January 2013, with an increase of more than 1.5 million users.

Adeeb says the Brotherhood saw an opportunity online to “rally voices of dissent in a forum where the regime can’t watch as closely.”

“Everyone in Egypt is on Facebook. We live on Facebook,” he said. “With the return of the military regime we feel it is the one place we can still be free.”

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Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
Contact Sheera Frenkel at
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