A legislative proposal being considered in the Egyptian Parliament would require citizens to acquire a license if they wish to access Facebook and other online social networks. The social media license would be issued by the government only after the Egyptian citizen has furnished his or her national ID number, email address and the usernames used across social networks. Accessing a social network without a license could result in prosecution by the Egyptian Ministry of Interior.
Ostensibly, social media control would allow the Egyptian government to combat terrorism, radicalism and violent insurgency. In Egypt and around the world, social networks are used by extremists to push their agenda of hatred and intolerance; this was made clear by the ISIS terrorist faction in the wake of the massacre that left 29 Coptic Christians dead near Cairo. ISIS sympathizers celebrated the attack and called for more violence against Christians in Egypt. Terrorism and extremism are valid reasons for the government to conduct social media surveillance; unfortunately, people in Egypt are convinced that oppression, corruption and intimidation are behind the aforementioned proposal to require social media licenses.
In the World Press Freedom Index, the Arab Republic of Egypt can be found near the bottom of the list. As of May 2017, Egypt is the 161st most oppressive nation in terms of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and recent developments could push this Northern African nation further down the list. According to various news reports, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has moved to block access to 20 international news websites, including the respected and popular Al Jazeera. The reason for this draconian measure was an incident involving a dissident attorney who flashed an obscene gesture towards officials; this outspoken lawyer has been given a speech platform by foreign news agencies, and this is something that President al-Sisi is not comfortable with.
Oddly enough, the official press agency of the Egyptian government released news of the censorship action. Some of the blocked news sites such as the HuffPost Arabi have urged Egyptian readers to stay tuned to their social media accounts, particularly Twitter, to bypass the online censorship imposed by the government. Twitter has played a very important role in the political transformation of Egypt since the Arab Spring of 2011, and this is something that worries the government of el-Sissi.
In April 2017, the Egyptian government partially shut down messaging services such as Skype and WhatsApp, which Egyptians often use to place free or low-cost VoIP calls. The government said that the temporary block was part of an investigative measure in the wake of the Palm Sunday attacks that killed 47 Christians. Upon closer inspection, however, journalists revealed that local telephone companies have been complaining to the government about the proliferation of messaging services cutting into their profits.
Egypt is not the only nation where social media censorship has been suggested. The central government of China is notorious in this regard. Even closer to Egypt, restricting social media access has been proposed in Nigeria and even Kenya, but such attempts are unlikely to be made into law. Should the social media license law be implemented in Egypt, netizens will find ways to access their Twitter accounts by other means, and their discontent could fuel another Arab Spring.