Monday 26 June 2017

The Republic of Darkness

“I believe in life and people. I feel obliged to advocate their highest ideals as long as I believe them to be true. I also see myself compelled to revolt against ideals I believe to be false, since recoiling from rebellion would be a form of treason.” – Naguib Mahfouz

Ten years in prison was the sentence. He must have hurt someone, right? Or robbed a bank? Embezzled money? Stole a car?

No. Mohamed Ramadan criticized his government on Facebook.

The Sisi regime used Egypt’s controversial 2015 “counter-terrorism” law to convict Ramadan for using Facebook to “insult” Sisi, harm unity, and incite violence. Ramadan’s real “crime” is his work defending human rights activists and political prisoners who oppose Sisi’s illegitimate dictatorship. His lawyers allege that the regime even went so far as to create fake social media profiles for Ramadan and post calls for terrorist activities while pretending to be him.

Soon after Ramadan’s conviction, Dostour Party member Nael Hassan was arrested for also insulting the president, inciting public opinion, affiliation with an outlawed group, obstructing state institutions, and attempting to overthrow the regime based on the same Sisi decree.

Well, at least they admit they are a regime.

The 2015 law was intentionally crafted in such a way as to give the regime free reign to arrest anyone it wants, effectively banning freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and it quite intentionally silences the press, as it requires fines between $25,550-$64,000 USD for journalists who “contradict official accounts of militant attacks,” as well as other vaguely outlined punishments for so-called terrorist activity.

Yes, Egypt has a real problem with terrorism. Hundreds of Egyptian security forces have been murdered by criminals using religion as an excuse for their crimes in recent years, many of whom have pledged their support to Daesh. The horrific attacks on Copts in April lent Sisi an excuse to declare a “state of emergency,” which in Egypt simply means added oppression for Egyptian citizens, as we saw under Mubarak’s thirty-year state of emergency rule. Since then, the 2015 law has been used to arrest hordes of people. But let’s get real here; the law is not about terrorism, it is about tightening Sisi’s control over the people of Egypt and protecting his fragile ego. Sisi is just another dictator on a growing list of those who arrest people for online posts under the guise of counter-terrorism, a worrisome trend for net freedom and human rights in general.

25 January 2011 seems like a lifetime ago.

Hope has since succumbed to the new realities of a post-Arab Spring world, one that has seen the same kind of economic stagnation, a more evil form of religious extremism, incessant civil war, bizarre diplomatic schisms, backsliding democracy, and perhaps worse political oppression than that which had plagued Egypt for the previous three decades, characterized by unbridled censorship, unlimited surveillance, and arrest and detention for mere tweets.

Many digital things combined to bring together events at Tahrir Square, and non-digital things, too. The event was like a flashing star in the history of Cairo. With the coups and crackdowns and cuckoos blowing things up under the black flag of death using guns and knives and trucks to take down that which is human – and godly – sometimes it is difficult to recall that sense of Hope. The whole world was there at that moment, watching those brave souls standing up to 30 years of tyranny, armed with nothing but mobile phones and a desire for change.

My, what six years can do. Technology has changed since then, even if oppression in Egypt has not. While smartphones, broadband, and Facebook were widely available in 2011, the digital reach was nowhere near what it is today in Egypt.

And that scares the regime.

Not content to just arrest opponents for online posts, in the last several weeks, Sisi has been freaking out about all that technological innovation and growth, shuttering 63 websites, blocking VPNs, and spreading fake news about “terrorists” using tech to spread their message, like Mada Masr, a progressive, independent “terrorist” news website and Albedaiah, run by an independent “terrorist” journalist. Even international “terrorist” platforms like Medium have been blocked.

Lies. They know they are lies. We know they are lies. Everyone knows they are lies, yet they continue to put up the pretense that they are combating "terrorism."

Ramadan and Hassan are not alone. Mohamed Essem. Alaa Abdel Fattah. Ahmed Douma. Ahmad Maher. Mohamed Adel. Just some of the names on the list. The list is long. The list is unjust. As Facebook has grown, so too have the number of Facebook prisoners. Last week, at least 40 people were arrested for social media posts regarding planned protests over the land exchange with Saudi Arabia. Just before #Jan25 2016, the Sisi regime arrested 150 opposition supporters, including 47 administrators of so-called Muslim Brotherhood Facebook pages, as well as 24 year-old Mohamed Essem, admin of a revolutionary socialists page. The Facebook arrests were part of a wider crackdown on any opposition since the Sisi coup, often under the guise of terrorism, or sometimes under the thin-skinned "insulting the president" excuse. Prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah has been in prison for two of what is supposed to be five years for opposing the Sisi coup.

But the regime doesn't stop at mere arrest and detention. In February 2015, infamous human rights violator judge Nagy Shehata sentenced 183 people to death and 230 people to life in prison for the “crime” of demanding freedom. Hundreds more Egyptians have been disappeared by the regime. Last year, 3,462 university students were in prison, more than the entire student bodies of some universities in the world. No one can be exactly sure of the number of political prisoners held in Egypt, but activists say it numbers in the tens of thousands.

What's more, the regime has taken to hacking prominent activists and human rights NGOs.

As Gamal Eid, human rights activist and director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information said, the 2015 counter-terrorism law ushered in a republic of darkness in Egypt. You can imagine how many prominent bloggers and social media activists have gone silent. Many live in exile. Being a dissident in Egypt is a dangerous occupation, one in which human life is at risk.

But you don’t have to be silent. You can be anonymous. You can be encrypted. Regimes fear that anonymity, and they seek to take it away. We're not going to let them. We're going to keep on encrypting even when they try to ban it, because we're not going to toss that Hope into the dustbin of history.

The discovery of fire changed the human story, giving us the ability to keep warm and cook our food. Yet fire has been used as a weapon time and time again. Would it not be absurd to ban fire?

The airplane has allowed us to transverse the globe in a matter of hours. It has also brought the deaths of millions as a transport for bombs that can set fire to entire cities. Kamikazes used it as a weapon during World War II just as Islamic terrorists used it to bring down the World Trade Center. Did we try to ban the airplane? Again, ridiculous.

Encryption gives us yet another powerful tool that benefits our lives, protecting us from hackers and surveillance, keeping our money secure in a world of ecommerce, safeguarding our private data from cyberthieves and those who would do us harm, preventing corporate espionage and theft of intellectual property, and perhaps most importantly, protecting the voices of the oppressed, whether they are fighting for freedom or are part of some persecuted group, be it religion, orientation, race, or any of the other things that divide our world.

Do the United States Congress and the British Parliament and the French Assembly and the other Western governments wanting to mandate encryption backdoors seriously believe that the Sisis, Assads, and Jintaus of the world or the jihadi criminals who recruit with social media or the black hats who steal our data won’t find those backdoors?

Additionally, are we going to give more rights to corporations who sell surveillance technology to oppressive regimes than to ordinary citizens, corporations like Hacking Team, who sold surveillance programs to the Sisi regime that may have played a part in the mass arrests that seem to be commonplace? Egyptians, among so many others, need encryption now more than ever.

That’s why SumRando exists. We want to provide the tools necessary to protect freedom of expression and privacy in the twenty-first century. We are privacy advocates. While we may not be doing work on the same level as those who distributed the famed samizdat in the Soviet Union, or the Irish monks who sealed themselves in towers to copy documents by hand so that they may save the great works from the Viking hordes, or the Arabs who invented modern cryptography and frequency analysis, we do believe we can contribute. We’re ok with you wanting to use our product to access movies or games or even videos of a licentious nature. But we also want those of you who suffer from the heavy hands of censorship – activists, human rights and aid workers, journalists, women, oppressed minorities, and political opposition – to know that hey, we got your back.

So here’s to Tahrir and that Hope that we saw six years ago. Here’s to an Egypt and a Middle East free from the shackles of extremism and oppression. Here’s to a world where the dignity of all is not denied. Until then, we’ll give you the tools you’ll need to protect yourselves online.

Ban dictators, not discourse.

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