Egypt's cyber battles: An ambivalent relationship with the internet

Sarah Carr
12 Min Read

CAIRO: In December 2009 blogger Mohamed Khalaf was handed down a one-year prison sentence, in absentia, after a Tenth of Ramadan City court found him guilty of libeling the judiciary on his website.

Khalaf created “El-A’dala El-Zalema (Unfair Justice) after a business rival, Nader Khalil, was acquitted of charges of writing a blank check raised by Khalaf, an electronic parts salesman.

The content of the site as presented by Khalaf (a cached copy of the website does not exist) is a long diatribe against the judiciary, which he says “lacks ability.

Khalaf alleges that 96 percent of judicial verdicts are “wrong and that “judicial probity in Egypt is a lie, making reference to blogger Kareem Amer, the first Egyptian to be imprisoned for his online writing.

Khalaf ends by appealing to the Egyptian presidency to “wake up. The Ministry of Justice is in danger.

An even more important question however than the equity or otherwise of Khalaf’s conviction is whether the Egyptian police may have been complicit in Khalaf’s website being taken offline before the court verdict was issued.

In an email to Daily News Egypt, Khalaf maintains that his website was blocked by the company hosting it “upon the orders of the Ministry of Justice and the interior ministry and condemns the “stupidity of Egypt’s attempting to block websites.

“[Web users] have numerous alternatives such as a website [hosted] outside Egypt for $5 a month or a free blog but Egyptians still believe in blocking websites.the farce of detaining bloggers and website owners continues, Khalaf writes in the email.

Daily News Egypt spoke to three lawyers who all agreed that the content of Khalaf’s blog “crossed the line of what is acceptable. Two of them however maintain that this does not change the fact that the way in which Khalaf’s website was closed constitutes a violation.

Gamal Eid, director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) acknowledges that “the content of Khalaf’s website is not okay and much of it crosses legal lines.

He adds however that it was “not the right of the interior ministry division involved in Khalaf’s case “to close the website.

Speaking in his Cairo office, Amr Abdel-Wahab, director of the Orix company which hosted Unfair Justice told Daily News Egypt that Khalaf signed a contract with the company at the end of 2008.

Khalil filed the libel charges against Khalaf in February 2009. He was found guilty on December 21, 2009 under Article 306 of the Egyptian penal code, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights says in a statement issued in December.

In between these dates, Abdel-Wahab received a phone call from a police officer from the “electronic crimes unit.

The “electronic crimes department is formally known as the Counter-Computer and Internet Crimes Unit, a division of the interior ministry established in 2002.

“[The officer] said, ‘you’re hosting this website and we want it closed because it’s libelous, Abdel-Wahab explained. The police were able to ascertain that Orix was hosting Khalaf’s site by tracking the IP address, he suggests.

“When we checked the website we found that it did contain libelous material against the judiciary. I can’t remember whether there were specific names on the website, but I’m sure there were names.

Khalaf told Daily News Egypt that Abdel-Wahab asked him in a telephone call to “edit his website in June 2009, pursuant to a “recommendation from a police officer. Abdel-Wahab confirms this.

“I told him that he should edit the website and remove what he said about those people. He took down a couple of pages but the main concept remained, Abdel-Wahab says.

Khalaf says that Orix closed most of the website’s pages in June and left the home page open.

In December, Abdel-Wahab informed the blogger that he would not be renewing the contract between them.

Abdel-Wahab emphasized repeatedly during the interview that the website was not closed down because of the court case, but because Khalaf “misused the services Orix was providing.

“The police alerted us to this fact. I can’t check all the pages of the websites we host, Abdel-Wahab said, adding that Orix hosts some 300 websites.

A thin line

“I told Khalaf that what he was writing was libelous, and that it was in his own interests to make these allegations in the correct forum, not on a website. We didn’t ‘close down’ his website. We just didn’t renew the agreement because he broke the terms of the contract between us.

While Abdel-Wahab acknowledges that the two terms in Orix’s contract with Khalaf only concerned pornography and religion, and that the blogger broke neither of them, the Orix manager is adamant that Khalaf “made a mistake.

“He insulted people. There are issues concerning the judiciary which we simply can’t cast doubt on. The judiciary is the last refuge of the poor; if we start doubting the judiciary they’ll have no one else to seek recourse to. It damages Egypt, it damages our judges, it damages what we believe in – and Khalaf didn’t provide any evidence for his allegations against the judiciary.

Firas El Samad, a managing partner in the Zulficar & Partners law firm specialized in telecommunications law, said that Khalaf was “generalizing in the accusation made on his website.

“The attack itself included very aggressive statements that are based on assumptions and information that are not necessarily or absolutely accurate or true. Saying that all the judges are incompetent and corrupt is actually crossing the line of what is permitted under personal freedom and may incite people to lose trust in the judicial system, El Samad said.

El-Samad added however that while under “normal circumstances the police would need a judicial order to halt a publication, under the emergency law “they have much wider powers and discretion when it comes to censorship, per-empting and monitoring.

The “much wider powers granted under the almost 30-year-old state of emergency have, critics allege, led to the creation of a shadow legal system in which houses are searched and people are arrested and detained without judicial oversight – with impunity. This, they say, has led to a culture of violations.

At the same time however – unlike many states – the Egyptian government does not actively censor the internet: according to a 2009 report by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the last time Egyptian authorities blocked a website was in 2005.

Arrests, harassment and prosecutions of Egyptian bloggers and other net users demonstrate however the ambivalent relationship that the Egyptian authorities have with the internet – and all forums for free expression.

Egypt was one of the first Arab countries to introduce the internet, and Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif’s government has made great play of the importance it places on information technology, in 2003 opening the Smart Village, a 600-acre informational and communication technology business-park.

Egypt is also currently detaining without charge two bloggers, Mosaad Abu Fagr and Hani Nazeer, under its Emergency Law, ignoring repeated calls for their release by local and international rights groups.

Amer, imprisoned for four years in February 2007, was denied release last year despite being eligible for it.

Earlier this week the trial, in a military court, of a 20-year-old engineering student who blogged about a military college began. The army clearly remains a red line in all areas of Egyptian society, including its cyberspace.

And if the version of events presented by Abdel-Wahab and Khalaf is accurate, the internet is apparently not safe from the arbitrary abuses of power by the interior ministry which blight other areas of Egyptian society – and for which Egypt was recently called up on at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“When state security investigations intervenes in cases it does so in an illegal fashion far removed from the courts – which is not their right. The judiciary is the only entity allowed to stop this website, Eid said.

Daily News Eg
ypt asked Abdel-Wahab whether, in the absence of a judicial verdict against Khalaf, the police were not perhaps exceeding their mandate in demanding that his website be closed because they suspect that it contains libelous material.

“They said that this is a criminal offence. Not that it might be a crime – they stated: this is a criminal offence and that the case against Khalaf would be based on the content of his website, Abdel-Wahab explained.

The Orix manager refused a request from the state security officer for Khalaf’s personal details and informed him that he would not hand over such details without first seeing formal public prosecution office charges. He told the officer that he would speak to Khalaf first and “encourage him to edit the website.

Abdel-Wahab does not think that the phone call from the police necessarily constitutes intimidation. He acknowledged however that this “depends on the person who receives the phone call.

“That’s what happened to us. They spoke to me on the telephone. ‘We want to close this website.’ ‘Why do you want to close it?’ I asked. ‘Because it libels the judiciary.’

“Yes there are some people who when they receive a phone call like that will close it down right away. But others won’t. -Additional reporting by Omnia Al Desoukie

The Counter-Computer and Internet Crimes Unit refused to comment on the record about this case unless and until Daily News Egypt follows “procedures and sends a letter to the Foreign Press Center which will then be forwarded to the interior ministry. Any response will be published once these procedures are completed and a comment obtained.

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Sarah Carr is a British-Egyptian journalist in Cairo. She blogs at
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