Securitising the Internet: The Arab Vision for Internet Governance?

In March 2015, the 26th Arab League Summit raised internet governance (IG) as a future topic of discussion. Invoked in the opening speech of the Summit by the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, a glimpse on the future of IG as envisioned by Arab leaders was indicated.

The Middle East and North Africa is undeniably in turmoil at this moment of time as a result of increasing activism by terrorist groups. However, the security dilemma of this turmoil was the only factor that informed Al-Sisi, who asserted that the internet is a means for spreading terrorist rhetoric, ideas, and mobilisation. The speech primarily presented the internet as an “unconventional threat for Arab nation-states,” as Al-Sisi put it. Concluding his speech, Al-Sisi recommended that Arab states start laying a foundation for IG in the region and enforcing international treaties of concern.

There are three important assumptions that appeared In this speech. First, it identified the internet as a “security threat” to the state. Second, the challenge that Arab states face was presented as a consequence of the interconnectedness offered by the internet. This is contrasted to the state’s tradition role of protecting national security through territorial control.

Third, Arab internet users were accused of complicity with the threat, either by being passive receivers of terrorist rhetoric or by being potential recruits for terrorist groups. In this regard, internet users are disseminating fear and debates that threaten society’s cohesion and social fabric. The implicit theme for this assumption is the question of identity. “What impact does the internet have on the identity of the people, how would it affect their loyalty to the state, and how can the state control dissemination of ideas to maintain its grip on society writ large” are all questions that shape this third assumption. It has been central to Arab IG this far to extend the concepts and mechanisms of territorial control into cyberspace.

The first two assumptions, the security threat and territorial control, are key foundations for envisioned IG. Shortly after the Summit, the Egyptian Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (CIT) announced a draft project on IG in Egypt titled the “cybercrime bill.”It is important to note that under the presidency of Muhammed Morsi, the cabinet also attempted to introduce the same bill, which did not see the light as a result of sweeping criticism by Twitter users. The criticism was levelled not at the articles of the bill but at the verbatim duplication of a bill from Saudi Arabia.As for the bill introduced by the cabinet under Al-Sisi, it was covered in the press as a necessary intervention for counter-terrorism.

The government put forward mixed statements about the appropriate actions to achieve the goal of counter-terrorism. At a point, the Minister of CIT, Khalid Negm, acknowledged the importance of combating terrorist rhetoric by opening spaces for discussion to temper these leanings. On the other hand, Negm affirmed that blocking websites affiliated with terrorist organisations is the most effective action to limit the impact of these groups, seeking regional and international cooperation on the issue.

The bill and its accompanying political rhetoric show archaic approaches by the regime to such claimed threats. The interventions proposed and drafted for enforcement in the bill are a mere extension of repressive measures taken by the Egyptian state against its political opposition in the physical sphere. As shown in the articles for blocking and sentencing users convicted of identified cybercrimes, transparency, trust, and fairness of enforcement will be problematic if the bill is enacted in the future.

The problem of identity and the impact of the internet’s openness for public discussion is an actual threat for the state – security threat of a softer power. This is seen in the “defamation” of good morals in Article 24 of Tunisia’s bill, of “societal peace” and “religion” in Article 22 of Egypt’s bill and of “public order, morals, and religious values” in Article 6 of Saudi Arabia’s bill.

To each of these ruling regimes, the national identity enriched in each of these values constitutes a central element of their ability to rule. To the minds of the ruled, such values keep the unity, morality, and safety of the society or else chaos will endure. Moreover, such vague wordings allow the inclusion of virtually any form of expression as a “defamation” of any of these abstract and undefined concepts. This indicates that the power exercised in the public space physically has assured these authoritarian regimes that emergence of a civil society, a political movement, or expressions of other forms of assembly is nearly impossible.

In the making of Arab IG, states are not the sole actors, but political will of leadership is necessary for enforcement. In the case of Egypt, the bill did not pass as a result of internet users’“defamation” with illustrations of regime weakness and pressure by journalists on the state to halt this bill. However, individuals are still under strict state control, both offline and online. The enactment of the bill does not mean that the state does not take arbitrary measures against its citizens. The most recent cases in Egypt are those of Karim Al-Banna, for declaring atheism on Facebook, and a Hossam Bahgat, a journalist who covered a story on the trial of officers involved in planning an internal coup.

To achieve the goals of introducing IG and combating terrorism, Arab regimes have to look critically beyond their perspectives on state centralisation of power and control. IG concerns far more peaceful users than supposed terrorists and so far, many more human rights and constitutional violations have been committed under the name of preserving security than the actual introduction of public internet security measures. Liberalisation of the public space and cyberspace, and forming a multi-stakeholder convention to negotiate IG prospects is a rather more inclusive alternative than a state- and security-centric governance.

Author: Nardine ‘Nour’ Alnemr ( Egypt )