CAIRO — Egyptian authorities are tightening internet censorship at home as President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi seeks investment abroad, in what could be an attempt to tamp down dissent over an agreement to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
Watchdogs and human rights groups say news portals and other websites are being blocked at an unprecedented rate inside Egypt, with a new focus on so-called VPN providers that help users bypass the restrictions.
Two additional websites were blocked on Tuesday, bringing the total number of obstructed addresses to 64 since the censorship campaign began in late May, The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression said in a statement.
“We noticed the beginning of blocking websites that provide VPN services,” it said, referring to virtual private networks that can be used to access blocked content by routing connections through servers outside the country. “Such practice points to the intent of the government to continue blocking and filtering the content that Egyptian users could access.”
The latest site to be blocked, Yanair Gate, had hosted a string of critical articles in Arabic, including ones focused on opposition in parliament to a deal el-Sissi made to hand over two islands to Saudi Arabia, and articles quoting a leading rights lawyer who is widely expected to run in next year’s presidential election.
The Association says it is using software from the Tor Project, which hides users’ locations and allows them to communicate anonymously, to track the censorship. Both the Tor site and that of its specific software are currently blocked.
El-Sissi has presided over a widespread crackdown on dissent since he led the military overthrow of his predecessor, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, in 2013.
On May 24, Egypt’s official news agency reported that the government ordered internet service providers to block access to 21 news websites, alleging they supported terrorism or reported “false news.” Neither government ministries nor the presidency have officially commented on the blockages.
Among the blocked sites were those of Qatar-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera. Egypt has joined Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations in seeking to isolate Qatar over allegations it supports terrorist groups, charges Qatar denies.
Egyptian authorities also blocked sites linked to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, now outlawed and branded a terror group, and those linked to the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
However, most of the blocked addresses are news websites, including prominent investigative platform Mada Masr and other publications such as Daily News Egypt and even business daily Al-Borsa. VPN service Tunnelbear, which describes itself as providing “really simple computer and mobile apps for private browsing and to experience the internet as if you are in another country,” was among the latest to be blocked.
El-Sissi was in Germany on Monday and Tuesday to attend a conference on partnership between the G20 group of major economies and African countries, and to drum up trade and investment. He gave a speech but did not take any questions, and later met Chancellor Angela Merkel privately.
After meeting with el-Sissi, German Economy Minister Brigitte Zypries said Berlin wants to strengthen its economic relations with Egypt, its most important trading partner in North Africa, but that adherence to the rule of law is essential, as “companies need reliable conditions for investment decisions.”
No public mention was made of Germany’s civil society groups’ planned return to Egypt, for which Merkel said she had reached an additional protocol during a visit to Cairo in March. Since then el-Sissi has enacted a tough new law to regulate NGOs that would likely affect the German groups unless they receive an exemption.
Thousands have been jailed in el-Sissi’s crackdown, and the government has banned all unauthorized protests. NGOs can be shut down arbitrarily.
The rights lawyer leading opposition to el-Sissi’s agreement with Saudi Arabia, Khaled Ali, has called the president a “traitor” over the move to hand over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to the Saudis, who have been a major benefactor.
The government says the islands were always Saudi but were placed under Egypt’s protection in the 1950s amid heightened Arab-Israeli tensions.
Ali stands little chance in next year’s election against el-Sissi, but as talk of his potential run grew, a court case emerged against him on minor obscenity charges, which could render him ineligible to run for office.
Amnesty International urged Egypt to stop blocking the websites.
“The Egyptian authorities seem to be targeting the few remaining spaces for free expression in the country,” said North Africa campaigns director Najia Bounaim. “It shows just how determined the authorities are to prevent Egyptians from accessing independent reporting, analysis and opinion about Egypt.”
Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.