Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld on Saturday, May 26, a ruling by a lower administrative court that ordered the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) to ban YouTube from streaming in Egypt for one month. The initial ruling came after the video-sharing platform had hosted a fourteen-minute video entitled Innocence of Muslims, said to have denigrated the Prophet Muhammad. The ban had not yet been implemented pending the final decision in the case. The lawyer who had filed a lawsuit to block YouTube and Twitter in 2013, Mohammed Hamed Salem, asserted that the ruling would also block all other websites that link to the video.
The final decision upholding the ban comes during a worsening crackdown on freedom of expression in Egypt. While the film’s content is undoubtedly offensive to many Muslims, the ongoing crackdown suggests that the regime’s motivation for blocking YouTube may have more to do with limiting other forms of public expression than with blocking public access to a rather insignificant video.
The video was produced by Mark Basseley Youssef, formerly known as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. The producer, who also goes by the pseudonym Sam Bacile, is an Egyptian Coptic filmmaker who receives private funding from United States. Some reports have linked the video’s financing to a number of right-wing Christian organizations in the U.S. The poorly-edited, low-budget film offended many Muslims by portraying the Prophet as a womanizer and child molester.
The video was released in September 2012, provoking a wave of backlash against the filmmaker and the U.S., the country in which he resides. Violent demonstrations erupted on September 11, 2012 in Egypt and soon spread to other Muslim nations, resulting in more than fifty deaths and several hundred injuries. Some claim that the video was the trigger for the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, which resulted in the killing of an American ambassador and three other diplomats.
U.S. officials responded that they had no power to censor the film’s content due to the U.S. Constitution’s protection of freedom of speech. Egyptian authorities thus decided to take matters into their own hands. In 2013, Egypt’s lower administrative court ruled to ban YouTube, which is owned by Google, over the film. However, the ruling was appealed due to concerns that interrupting Google’s search engine could cause economic problems in the country. The most recent ruling by the Supreme Court, however, is final and cannot be appealed.
Perhaps more significantly than the banning of the video is the context in which the ban occurred. The ban issued while former president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was in power in 2013. The former president’s religious leanings may explain in part why the video was seen as so offensive. However, the implementation of the ban under current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who assumed power in 2014, seems motivated less by religious sensibility than an effort to stamp out all opposition.
Egyptian authorities have cracked down on a number of news outlets and arrested several journalists since Sisi came to power. According to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, the number of temporarily or permanently blocked websites in the country has risen from 21 on May 24, 2017, to 496 by February 1, 2018. Authorities have also shut down multiple news outlet for attempting to expose electoral fraud during the March 2018 presidential elections, in which Sisi was re-elected by an alleged 97% of the vote. Moreover, the regime has arrested scores of journalists and bloggers in recent months, with 34 currently in prison. It has also carried out several rounds of arrests, such as when it detained 190 political activists from April to June, 2017. Some analysts believe that the current crackdown is related to scheduled subsidy cuts that will be launched in July of this year. However, this explanation does not clarify the rounds of previous arrests and, thus, is only part of the reason for the ongoing campaign to silence dissent.
In this vein, the ban on YouTube appears to serve the Egyptian regime’s agenda of quieting opposition. YouTube has been a powerful tool for exposing the brutality of the Egyptian regime during the Arab uprisings as well as during subsequent protests. The international community was able to access live footage of events as they unfolded, including the security forces’ targeting of peaceful protesters. The Innocence of Muslims, therefore, serves as a convenient excuse to censor other negative or “offensive” internet content and particularly to curtail a web platform that threatens the Egyptian regime’s capacity to control information leaving the county. Perhaps a telling sign of the regime’s intentions will be whether it finds reason to extend the ban after one month or if it sticks to the Supreme Court’s ruling and actually caps the ban at one month.