Egypt’s dirty war (part II): Surveillance for all

Sisi’s brutal crackdown off and online uses the ‘War on terror’ to justify violence, and has instilled a climate of fear among the population

by Hossam el-Hamalawy

The Egyptian government created new bodies and enacted new laws to tighten its grip on local media and internet users, including a legislation that considers anyone with more 5,000 followers on a social media platform as a media entity, subject to prosecution over “fake news”.

The government has also censored more than 500 websites, mostly belonging to foreign and local news outlets, opposition organisations, activist blogs and leading international rights groups. In northern Sinai, the residents regularly remain without internet or mobile telecommunications for most of the day, which often coincides with military operations.

Sisi’s security services have also launched phishing attacks against activists online, hacking social media accounts and monitoring dissidents.

Tens of thousands of bots on Twitter are also used by the regime to orchestrate attacks, intimidation and character assassination campaigns against dissidents, as well as spreading fake news in support of Sisi’s propaganda.

The security services also manage Facebook pages, whose aim is similar to its Twitter bot army.

Offline, social media users are regularly targeted by the security services who monitor dissent on the internet.

Scores of journalists and bloggers remain in prison. The Egyptian press syndicate was raided by the police in 2016, probably for the first time in its history, to arrest journalists who sought refuge inside its building.

Reporters without Borders rank Egypt at 161 from 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, describing it as “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists”.Foreign reporters are under constant pressure to abide by the government’s line and views. Foreign researchers and students are also under constant monitoring, as exposed by the infamous case of Italian student Giulio Regeni who was brutally tortured, mutilated and killed by the paranoid security services in Cairo.

Brainwashing and incitement on air

And to top it all off, the Egyptian intelligence services have direct control over the local newspapers and TV stations, through front companies and affiliated businessmen.

TV soap operas and cinema films scripts are revised by representatives from the security services, who instruct the industry into glorifying the police and the army, and demonising the human rights organisations and opposition activists.

The militarisation of the police and heavy intervention of the army in crushing dissent and “fighting crime” has also meant simply more deaths. Talk show hosts, loyal to the regime and handpicked by the security services, constantly smear the opposition leaders and activists, sensationally call for their imprisonment, and incite murder on air.

They also propagate conspiracy theories and false news, about the “plots” against the country by “foreign powers” and their “domestic agents”. Goebbels would have been proud.

Appetite for murder

The real numbers of the killings remain unconfirmed, since the security services operate with full immunity and zero accountability.

The Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence is a Cairo-based anti-torture clinic that was shut down by the government as part of a wide crackdown against NGOs.

Its doctors documented from June 2014 to June 2018 (Sisi’s first presidential term) a total of 3,270 persons were killed by the army and police, i.e. at least two citizens per day. During the same period, the Nadeem Center also documented the death of 461 persons in custody, i.e. two citizens per week.

Randomisation of violence

One question, however, remains: If Sisi is targeting all forms of dissent, why has the crackdown included completely “illogical” cases, such as Khairy who became to be known as the “blind sniper,” or like el-Refai, who is in no way connected to insurgency or dissent?

Is it due to their lack of professionalism? Lack of intelligence? The answer may be more sinister.

In the fight against dissent and for population control, a classic tactic used by the state is the “intentional randomisation of violence”.

This kind of thinking leaves you completely paralysed by fear, with zero trust in your neighbours, friends and work colleagues, and with much curbed social circles. As a result, any prospects for future collective dissent are unceremoniously quashed, and society ends up socially atomised. By picking up random “illogical” targets, the redlines become blurry, and it unleashes endless attempts by those connected to the victim and the wider circles to try to rationalise and speculate the reason for targeting, that in the end lead to a complete social paralysis, a prerequestie for population control.

You let their friends wonder if victims were taken because they spoke to the “wrong” persons? Was it because they sat in the wrong bar or cafe? Was it because they might have crossed the line with the wrong people offline or online?

Partners in crime

The US and the EU are also partners in this dirty war and so share responsibility for the crimes and abuses committed by the regime they sponsor and fund. The Egyptian regime is seen as a strategic ally to fighting “the war on terror,” and to policing the southern borders of the Mediterranean against migrants and refugees heading to Europe.

What I and many Egyptian activists would like to see from the US and the Europeans is a halt to military exports and security cooperation with the Sisi regime.

This is not to deny that there is an insurgency threat in the country. But the truth remains that Sisi’s dirty war has been fueling that threat, with crimes and violence by the state much worse and on a bigger scale than those committed by the insurgents.

And there is no end in sight, or any prospect of imminent victory as regime officials have regularly announced since 2013.

The regime’s dirty war, together with failing social and economic policies which have seen an aggressive mixture of neo-liberalism and militarisation, and the continuous squandering of resources on white elephant projects, make Egypt a fertile ground for what the regime pretends to fight: terrorism and migration.

As long as the money, arms, training and political backing continue to flow from the US and Europe, Sisi will confidently continue his current catastrophic policies, and his dirty war on Egypt.

Hossam el-Hamalawy is a journalist and labour activist from Cairo. 

Follow him on Twitter:@3arabawy

This article first appeared on the alaraby Website.

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