News Analysis: Monitoring social media websites stirs up debate in Egypt

News Analysis: Monitoring social media websites stirs up debate in Egypt

by Marwa Yahya

CAIRO, June 3 (Xinhua) -- The Egyptian Interior Ministry's plan to monitor social media websites has stirred up debate in a country seeking stability after three years in turmoil.

Some experts see the plan as necessary for improving security while others believe it would suppress freedoms and abuse human rights.

The Interior Ministry unveiled on Sunday a proposal to "detect social network security threats, prevent crime and track down terrorists," official news agency MENA reported.

The new system aims to follow increasingly relevant security problems through social media such as terrorism, explosive manufacturing and assassination acts, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said, adding the system will also scan the sites to analyze and identify people prevailing "destructive opinions."

The Interior Ministry's main objective is "detecting the plans of the Jihadist and terrorist groups," said Megahead el-Zayat, expert in the National Center for Middle East Security Studies.

Since the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi, Islamist insurgents based mainly in the restive Sinai Peninsula have killed hundreds of police and army personnel. Official security reports said the terrorists exchange data over manufacturing the home-made bombs or assaulting the security premises through the internet.

Though the priorities of the new system will be Twitter, Facebook and Youtube, the Interior Ministry added the possibility of following local and international online forums and news websites.

"The national security currently requires serious procedures to monitor social media which have been used by terrorists to destroy the society," Zayat told Xinhua.

Meanwhile, Hafez Abou Sedah, the head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, saw imposing an electronic monitoring on the social media is "undermining the freedom of speech and the right of expression and violating the privacy principals."

He added "the constitution prohibited invading the privacy of people or following them without the general prosecution or court order."

Social media websites especially Twitter and Facebook played a basic role in the 2011 uprising that toppled the long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak. The political and pro-democracy activists often use the sites to express opinions, criticize the government's performance, and sometimes to call for protests.

While the Interior Ministry said the electronic monitoring mainly targets the hardliners who call for violence, or people insulting religions as well as anti-state strategies and tactics, the revolutionary youths believe collecting data will be used to launch security crackdown on the opposition.

Immediately after announcing the details of the Interior Ministry monitoring system, netizens launched several hashtags. " We are watched," hashtag made the highest participation on both Twitter and Facebook pages.

People using other hashtags: "Police state back again," "We all will be caught," "Send message to your private detective," were divided on either supporting the plan as a matter of national security or rejecting following the personal data in the name of combating terrorism.

Egypt has no laws regulating the use of digital information or online privacy. The National Security apparatus, previously known as State Security during Mubarak's era was tasked with spying on citizens and was an instrument for quashing dissent.

Ordinary monitoring of social media is no longer sufficient in light of huge rise of internet visitors after the 2011 uprising, said the security expert, Zayat, noting all pro-democracy countries like the United States use the same models to improve security.

Heads of several political parties deemed the Interior Ministry 's plan as return back to Mubarak's era of stifling freedom of opinion and expression. "There is difference between adhering necessary security procedures and spying on citizens," said Refaat al-Said, head of leftist Tagmmu party, arguing the country has to find other methods to combat terrorism rather than only depending on "security methods."

"There is no reason for panic," said Hazem Saleh, information technology expert, who explained the system couldn't monitor all the accounts or analyze all data.

It will only monitor the home pages by using keywords, likewise "terror, violence, weapons, bombs" for searching, but couldn't penetrate the personal accounts without legal permission, the IT expert added.

Some countries blocked several websites, but Egypt ensured the right of expression with monitoring the violations, added Saleh.