In Egypt, when social media gets shut down, democracy gets shut out

In Egypt, when social media gets shut down, democracy gets shut out
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​It has become a commonplace to say that the tech giants are becoming nation-states unto themselves. And recent events have focused attention on the social media platforms’ policing their own domains, benignly or otherwise, including their manipulation by Russian hackers and bots, their willingness to accommodate repressive regimes’ desires to spy on users’ emails, and so forth.

But often neglected is the role social media platforms can play in preserving free expression from off-line threats. In particular, prominence on social media provides a vital measure of protection to journalists and bloggers working in dangerous, repressive states. Particularly with the Trump administration appearing to withdraw some of the protection this country once provided to dissidents in dangerous places, social media platforms are often the sole source of shelter the West can provide.

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The Egyptian security police’s arrest late last week of prominent activist Wael Abbas is a frightening demonstration of what can go wrong when social media platforms fail to exercise responsibility commensurate with their power.

 

Wael Abbas was one of the first famous bloggers in the Middle-East. As much as anyone, he is the voice of the Arab millennial: bright, well-educated, technologically literate, and deeply hostile to both autocrat and theocrat. He articulated the frustrations of a whole generation of skilled, capable young men and women in Egypt unable to find jobs because of the military-dominated regime’s endemic corruption and economic mismanagement. Without steady incomes, they cannot marry or start families. Competent national leadership would marshal their talents to spur a tech revolution to rival those that transformed east Asia and south India. As it is, however, they have seen their lives’ prospects slip away from them as the victories of the Arab Spring crushed with Western support for autocrats.

These people, the ones Abbas represents, offer our best, indeed only, prospect of finding real allies in the region. We certainly will not find dependable allies among the despots, who are only too happy to pocket our aid and then sell us out whenever it proves convenient. Egyptian President al-Sisi’s embrace of Vladimir Putin is a timely reminder of that. And although we should maintain lines of communication with moderate Islamists, they never will be our true allies.

Abbas is no charmer. His language is coarse, his tone is snarky, and he bears little resemblance to the smiling idealists Americans prefer as reformers in other countries. But democracy has few better friends in Egypt.

Abbas was the first to publish videos leaked from inside the security services, showing the extent of their reliance on torture and their preference for sexual torture of women and men alike. His was one of the first, and clearest, calls to action that ignited the Arab Spring democracy movement in Egypt and brought down long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak. When General al-Sisi’s coup restored the military to power, Abbas refused to hide as so many others understandably did, interacting daily with his millions of followers on-line.

Time and again, one or another of his exposés led his friends to fear that he finally had gone too far, that he would finally be killed. He was arrested numerous times, and the United States repeatedly intervened to get him out of jail.

With the State Department now far less inclined to intervene on behalf of dissidents in countries whose governments we like, Abbas’s prominence on Twitter was his main source of protection.

Unfortunately, despite his numerous international human rights awards, Twitter reportedly allowed the repressive Egyptian regime to manipulate it into suspending Abbas from its platform. Time and again, the regime filed flimsy complaints against Abbas. Twitter dutifully suspended Abbas while it investigated. As one investigation drew to a close, a new complaint started the cycle all over again.

If I say that we should beat a particular senator around the head with his votes on health care legislation, no sensible person would take me to be advocating violence. And if anyone were confused, my long history of non-violent policy advocacy would resolve the question. But the Egyptian regime seized upon that sort of language in Abbas’s posts to accuse him of fomenting violence.

Twitter recently allowed Abbas to return, but with a new name to separate him from his millions of followers. Also lost is one of the most complete photo and video archives of the Arab Spring’s rise and fall.

Seeing how well its ruse worked on Twitter, the regime apparently concluded that Abbas no longer has effective protection. His arrest in the wee hours of a Wednesday morning is particularly ominous: Such arrests are customarily reserved for dissidents whom the authorities want to torture through the weekend (Friday is the Muslim sabbath) before deciding whether to bring them before a magistrate.

Twitter’s alleged willingness to allow despots to manipulate it so easily, if true, is deeply disheartening. At a time when the alt-right, ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other thugs enjoy active social media presences, how ironic that non-violent, largely pro-western bloggers cannot. This country is rapidly losing almost every secular democratic ally we have in the Middle-East. We cannot remain timidly silent when despotic regimes try to silence the few remaining voices of dissent.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.