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The history and present of state surveillance in Egypt


President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi tours parts of the New Administrative Capital in eastern Cairo, Egypt, on 4 May 2023. The smart city features lampposts that serve as WiFi hotspots and key cards that grant access to buildings, as well as more than 6,000 surveillance cameras monitoring the first of its 6.5 million inhabitants. Photo: IMAGO / APAimages

With roughly between 95 to 99 percent of the population crammed into less than 5 percent of the total land, political scientist Amy Holmes rightly remarks that “It is safe to say that the Egyptian people were, almost without exception, under the watchful eyes of the state.”

Drawing on the old Islamic Caliphate’s policing tradition of basaseen (secret spies), the Egyptian modern state developed an infrastructure for surveillance and intelligence gathering, penetrating most layers in urban society. After invading the country in 1882, British colonial administrators took over that system and modernized it into what became known as the City Eye. Such a surveillance network, naturally, depended on human resources.

Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist and socialist activist currently based in Berlin. His posts appear regularly on Substack and Twitter.

The electronic surveillance capabilities of the Egyptian state received a relative boost after the 1952 Free Officers coup. The new republican regime sought the help of the CIA and later the KGB, deploying the latest technology available at the time to engage in wiretapping. Intelligence officers were sent for training abroad and spared no expenses in buying the know-how and necessary hardware.

Still, surveillance of public spaces remained heavily on human informers, undercover agents, and uniformed policemen deployed in the streets. The 2011 uprising, however, proved a turning point. The battered security services rushed to develop their electronic arsenal. That trend would skyrocket after the 2013 coup, as the increased military and police presence in public areas along the Nile Valley provinces and elsewhere is increasingly coupled with the rise of electronic mass monitoring of the population.

Both online and off, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime has vastly expanded electronic surveillance in its quest for crushing dissent and ensuring the population remains under strict control.

The State’s Uninterrupted Gaze

The Egyptian repressive apparatus institutions’ interest in facial recognition technology and mass surveillance peaked after the coup, and by April 2015, the Permanent National Committee for Security Coordination of the Video Surveillance Camera System was established to coordinate CCTV monitoring across the country. Chaired by the Assistant Interior Minister for Communication Systems and Information Technology, the committee includes representatives from the Military Intelligence (MI), General Intelligence Service (GIS), Homeland Security (HS), and a number of civilian agencies and ministries. It is tasked with overseeing the installation of CCTV cameras in all provinces and linking their visual feed in a national grid, jointly accessed by the security services.

A series of laws and decrees ensued to enforce the installation of CCTV cameras inside and outside commercial shops, state institutions, workplaces, and educational facilities — in short, almost any public space that exists in the crowded urban centres. The government also specified the technical capabilities of the CCTV cameras, and the required time period for video feed retention.

Moreover, in August 2015, the Awqaf (Religious Endowments) Minister announced a national plan to monitor all the country’s mosques. CCTV cameras, according to the plan, are to be installed on the entrances and around the corners of every mosque to monitor the external vicinity. Also, cameras will be installed inside to “monitor the Imams, workers, as well as the ideas, religious teachings, and Friday sermons preached, to ensure they were in accordance with the ministry’s thought and unified sermon”.

Civilian public spaces are mostly under the gaze of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and the GIS. The MOI’s Communication Systems and Information Technology Sector plays the central role in such an operation, as stipulated by the 2015 decree. Its officers regularly inspect the different designated locations. The new prison mega-complexes built in Wadi al-Natron (roughly 100 kilometres northwest of Cairo) and Badr (65 kilometres east of Cairo) are all covered by CCTV cameras imported from the US and possibly Taiwan. The GIS, for its part, has been handling the CCTV installations in the education sector — university campuses, dorms and high school classrooms during final exams — and public squares.

Security and surveillance of military facilities, barracks, and institutions is the domain of the MI and Military Police. The army also operates surveillance cameras along the border with Gaza. But that is not the senior brass’s only interest — from early on, the military began scouting for and importing surveillance and facial recognition technology from a number of countries, such as the US, Germany, France, Ukraine, South Korea, China, and others. By 2021, the military’s Arab Organization for Industrialization boasted it was producing the “first 100-percent Egyptian-made” CCTV cameras to meet the growing demand in the local market.

These mass surveillance efforts are not overseen by the repressive apparatus alone. Another vital player is the Ministry of Local Development, the executive arm of the state in running provincial authorities, local councils, shops, operational licenses, public services (water, electricity, sewage, etc.) and many aspects related to daily life.

The ministry was created in 1999 and its first minister was Major General Mustafa Abdel Qader, the former State Security Police (SS) director who led the agency at the start of the War on Terror in the 1990s. Most of the ministers since Abdel Qader have come from the repressive apparatus. Hisham Abdel Ghani Amnah was a former major general in the Republican Guard. Mohsen al-Nu’mani and Abdel Salam Mahgoub had been major generals in both the military and GIS. Adel Labib and Mahmoud Shaarawi had been SS major generals. Ahmad Zaki Abdin and Abu Bakr al-Gindi had been army major generals and served as diplomats in the US. Also, Abdin was later appointed by Sisi to run the New Administrative Capital project.

Besides enforcing the CCTV installations on all shops, Major General Amnah, in his capacity as Minister of Local Development, issued a decree at the end of 2022 listing 83 business activities whose operational licenses were to require security permits. Previously, most only required licenses from civilian institutions. The long list includes virtually all shops, outlets, and businesses connected to any imaginable aspect of a citizen’s daily life, thus ensuring all public spaces are securitized. The ministry — especially under the tenure of Shaarawi and Amnah — has been taking the lead in the aggressive implementation of building demolition campaigns, alongside the repressive apparatus both in cities and small towns, thus emerging as an enabling tool for turning any inhabited terrain into a quasi-Foucauldian “perfect military camp.”

Militarized Urban Planning

The urban landscape has seen radical changes after 2013, especially in Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, and Egypt’s other relatively large cities. The state has become bolder when it comes to removing entire urban poor neighbourhoods, which Mubarak had long sought to gentrify but failed due to local resistance. Sisi’s regime, on the other hand, employs brute force to go beyond what Mubarak’s ambitious plans.

Getting rid of the urban poor is not the only aim of the continuous home demolition campaigns. Another catalyst for such drives echoes historical parallels with post-1848 Paris, which was demolished and rebuilt after the insurrection was put down to enable swift troop deployment and control of public spaces. Urban planners whom I interviewed have been quick to cite “security access” as one of the key elements behind the drive for wide-scale home demolitions and bridge construction, especially in Greater Cairo and Alexandria.

In the grand scheme of military domination, “bridges fragment communities”, says prominent Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy. “The bridges and highroads that they are building atomize society, which is us, the enemy and source of worry. They also serve to eliminate public space. Where do Egyptians gather and meet? The squares and streets. These are being taken away to deprive us of social unity.”

These changes in urban landscape and uprooting of communities occasionally trigger rare protests and confrontations, mostly with the police. The MOI’s Central Security Forces units are usually deployed during these forced evictions. Sisi threatened to send in the army to enforce the evictions in September 2021, but its involvement remains largely confined to Sinai.

Changes have included in recent years a state campaign to cull trees and eradicate green spaces (implemented by the municipal authorities under the supervision of the Ministry of Local Development) in the cities, and not only during roads expansion work. There is no clear justification given by officials, but one urban planner told me in an interview he was certain the culling was part of securitizing the landscape. “They first did it in Sinai, then the [Nile Valley] cities”, he said.

Post-Apocalyptic Cyberpunk Fortress Cities

Yet Sisi’s regime is not satisfied with just turning the historical urban centres, where the vast majority of the population have lived for centuries, into this “perfect military camp” under the permanent gaze of the repressive apparatus. It has set out to build new “camps” where the state’s permanent gaze is central to urban planning.

Sisi announced an ambitious plan to build 14 “smart cities” across the country, including the New Administrative Capital, 60 kilometres east of Cairo, and New Alamein, a summer capital close to the border with Libya. According to his vision, by 2030 these cities will increase Egypt’s urban landscape from 6 to 12 percent of the country’s surface area. Digitalization of all services, sustainable development, and green energy are supposedly the goals behind the project.

In theory, such a vision may include an upgrade in the quality of life, but in practice “smart” has become a euphemism for “surveillance,” and is part of several post-2013 trends in architecture and urban planning. Some of already existed prior to 2013, but received a boost after the coup, while others represent a complete departure from earlier traditions, as can be seen in the case of the New Administrative Capital.

Since the rule of Khedive Ismail (1830–1895), the government had left the citadel on Cairo’s Mokattam Hill, a part of the city that underwent massive development and construction work to house the government, control pandemics, and improve sanitation for its dwellers. This move also signalled a vision, whereby the elite felt relatively safe to live in a city with functioning services and a police force deemed professional enough to provide security.

After the 1952 Free Officers coup and the founding of the republic, there were several attempts to relocate government institutions to the outskirts of the capital, such as Nasr City. Later, Sadat announced plans to relocate ministries to Sadat City, but the project stopped with his demise. The drive to build “new cities” around the mid-1990s was not to accommodate the elites. On the contrary, the target was to remove the urban poor, working, and lower-middle classes from Cairo so that the elite could enjoy it. Only in the late 1990s would Egypt see the rise of gated compounds for the elites outside the capital. The relocation of the government to a different city in the desert is a departure from an almost-two-century tradition, and a return to the citadel model of governance.

The motives behind Sisi’s plan to build the New Administrative Capital are many. There is little doubt he is driven by megalomania as well as his desire to generate more business opportunities for the military. Yet, the move also reflects an ideological position: Sisi wants to ensure that no revolution ever happens again — that no strikes, roadblocks, or riots bring the government machine to a halt as it did in 2011.

The ruler of Egypt has given up on the old city, and indeed on the entire valley. For him, “Egypt” has become the New Administrative Capital and the New Alamein — two citadels linked together by a high-speed train. The government claims the new capital is not “fortified” and will not be walled-off, yet urban planners who viewed the designs paint a different picture. The city will have gates and a surveillance system that will ensure every car and person entering and exiting is monitored and tracked around the clock.

The regime does not even try to conceal this fact. Major General Abdin stated new capital streets will be under close surveillance via more than 28,000 CCTV cameras, wired to a “security control centre” run by the MOI. Inside the city itself, the different quarters such as the residential quarters, the Presidential Palace, diplomatic quarters, and others are walled off or gated. “This means once you enter the city you are monitored, and effectively have nowhere to go”, says one urban planner who viewed the designs.

While such plans may invoke images from science-fiction films of the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk genre, the urban planner says “it is not exactly post-apocalyptic. The apocalypse is still happening now — in front of our eyes. The old cities are melting down and degenerating, while [Sisi] offers a certain class in society a chance to live elsewhere in a place where services will be provided and institutions will be functioning, unlike the rest of the country.”

Policing Cyberspace

Dial-up internet service was first introduced in Egypt in late 1993. From the beginning, all national telecommunications infrastructure has been owned and operated by the military. Private internet and telephone service providers are not only required to obtain a license from the military, but also are prohibited from building their own infrastructure.

Instead, companies must rent and use the military’s infrastructure. Moreover, the details of their contracts with the military remain a secret. Repeated attempts by campaigners to obtain copies of the contracts over the years have failed. This arrangement gives the military (and the repressive apparatus as a whole) a relative advantage in the field of surveillance, as tech policing mechanisms are already built into the infrastructure and backed by the necessary legal framework that allows state intrusion.

But even if the repressive institutions have access to troves of metadata, they still need to import software and resort to extraordinary means like hacking devices in order to gain access to some forms of exchanged private data, such as email, or generate “meaningful information” out of the flood of metadata they scoop up.

In 2002, Mubarak’s notorious Interior Minister Habib al-Adly created the MOI’s Administration of Combatting Computer Crimes around the same time as the internet-related arrest took place. The webmaster of al-Ahram Weekly, Shohdy Naguib Sorour, was accused of running a website that published his late father’s poems that were deemed “blasphemous” and “indecent”. Shohdy fled to Russia and was sentenced in absentia to one year in prison.

SS already had an organ called al-Idāra al-ʿ Āmma li-l-Maʿlūmāt, the General Administration for Information, led in the early 2000s by Major General Mahmoud al-Rashidi, that was tasked with online surveillance and attacks. SS embraced the new digital era with enthusiasm. In fact, the agency officers from different administrations experimented with hacking and cyber-attacks on their own initiative, using personal knowledge or enlisting help of acquaintances, prompting Major General Salah Salama to issue an internal memo on 17 June 2003 asking them to stop. It was clear from the document, which was leaked after the 2011 revolution, that the agency was still grabbling with how to organize its online efforts. Salah concluded his memo with instructions:

The current hacking attempts are solely the mandate of the General Administration for Counter-Extremist Activity and, temporarily, the General Administration of Alexandria under the supervision of the Documentation and Data Recording Group, until the General Administration for Information in the agency handles these operations centrally. Should some respectful officers in any of the general administrations or local branches who are capable of carrying out such operations exist, their names should be referred to the General Administration for Information for coordinating with them in regards.

Yet it was the year 2004 that marked the real beginning of mass electronic surveillance, with the formation of Ahmad Nazif’s neoliberal cabinet and the ensuing digital boom. The legal framework for enabling the surveillance had already been drafted in the previous year. The intrusive 2003 Telecommunication Regulation Law gave wide-ranging powers to the MOI, military, GIS, and the Administrative Control Authority (ACA) to legally monitor and control the infrastructure as well as internet users.

In the beginning, there was no coordination between the four agencies, as well as continuous conflicts over remits. Each agency opted to form an “in-house team.” Usually, two dozen officers from each agency would be sent abroad for training in allied states, such as Italy or France, then return to Egypt with the know-how, software, and hardware for surveillance and hacking.

The MOI and SS quickly developed their structures, as dissidents increasingly began using the internet for propaganda and organizing. The Mahalla uprising in April 2008 was the first serious testing ground for the MOI’s electronic warfare arsenal, deploying its capabilities for mass surveillance, targeted telecommunication shutdowns, and cyber-attacks. The events were also an impetus for devoting more resources to such operations, as reflected in the structural changes adopted by SS in August 2008 four months after the uprising. The General Administration for Information was reorganized into two Central Administrations.

  1. al-Idāra al-Markaziyya li-Tadāwul al-Maʿlūmāt, the Central Administration for Information Circulation, which included: Maǧmūʿat al-Waṯāʾiq wa Tasǧīl al-Maʿlūmāt (Documents and Information Recording Group), Maǧmūʿat al-Maʿlūmāt (Information Group), Maǧmūʿat Tadābīr Amn al-Dawla (State Security Logistical Group).
  2. al-Idāra al-Markaziyya li-Tuknūlūǧyā al-Maʿlūmāt (Central Administration for Information Technology), which included: Maǧmūʿat al- Ḥāsib al-ʾ Āl (Computer Group) Maǧmūʿat al-Itiṣālāt wa-l-Šafra (Telecommunication and Encryption Group), which ran Qism al-Ittiṣālāt al-Lāsilkiyya (Wireless telecommunication Section), Maǧmūʿat al-Mutābaʿa al-Ilikturūniyya (Electronic Monitoring Group), which in turn ran three subdivisions, Qism al-Mutābaʿa al-ʿAlaniyya li-l-Intarnit (Public Internet Monitoring Section), Qism Taḥlīl wa Tašrīḥ al-ʾAdilla (Evidence Analysis and Diagnosis Section), and Qism al-Ikhtrāq al-Ilikturūnī (Electronic Hacking Section).

The ACA, MI, and GIS conducted online operations through several organs prior to the revolution, although very little information about them is available. A ground-breaking 2016 investigative report by Privacy International exposed the existence of a hacking and surveillance unit inside the GIS named the Technical Research Department, whose existence predated 2011.

Nevertheless, the repressive apparatus institutions were overwhelmed by the digital activism that accompanied the 2011 uprising. They concluded that they were lagging behind and rushed to shop for software licenses mainly from European firms, as in Italy, France, Germany. The MI, GIS, HS, and the ACA “threw so much money from 2011 to 2013”, says Ramy Raoof, one of Egypt’s top tech activists, who investigated and tracked the repressive apparatus’s foreign purchases. The lack of coordination was such an extent that

the four bodies authorized to conduct interception and surveillance bought [from] and opened communication channels with the same [foreign] software provider [Hacking Team] for some period of time. Each body bought the same software with a separate license and paid a budget without informing the other. Hence, Egypt has the same software with four separate licenses for the same operator.

The only one to know that was the [providing] company. The company realized that in Egypt they don’t coordinate between each other and that each of the Egyptian bodies sent a separate email with its own budget. So, it tripled the price for the four of them, selling [the software] to each one separately.

By 2014, two significant developments ensued. First, the Supreme Cybersecurity Council was created in December to coordinate the online efforts and devise a national strategy for electronic security. It included representatives from the MOD, MOI, GIS, ACA, and a number of civilian agencies. Second, the agencies largely gave up on their pre-2013 strategy that focused on grooming in-house teams. Instead, they outsourced the online surveillance and hacking operations to Egyptian private companies, whose boards are usually staffed with retired officers.

Similar private firms also provide armies of “bots” to boost regime propaganda on social media. However, instead of automated accounts that are easily discovered, the companies employ real people who sit in front of screens and keyboards, posting on Meta platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp)and Twitter, spreading fake news and smearing regime critics. These operations have been described by Meta management as “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”, as it repeatedly dismantled propaganda networks serving the Egyptian regime locally and regionally.

Crushing Digital Dissent

This electronic arsenal is of great importance for the state, especially when Sisi and other senior regime officials explicitly blame social media for corrupting the youth or instigating chaos. Since the 2013 coup, as the opposition was being quashed on the streets, university campuses, and workplaces, much of the dissent moved online, spreading through social media and messaging apps. This proved effective in igniting spontaneous anti-Sisi protests in September 2019 and September 2020, and remains a source of concern for the security services, who dread a repetition of the 2011 scenario.

While telecommunication shutdowns, banning of VPNs, and censoring independent websites were rare practices by the state before 2011, and were fully normalized after the coup, the repressive apparatus also increasingly resorts to a tactic borrowed from Mubarak’s regime. The latter preferred targeted crackdowns against internet users, handpicked so as to make an example of them, hoping this will terrorize the rest into self-censorship. After all, the police cannot arrest millions.

Sisi’s firewall has proven effective in shielding his regime in his war on the battered activist groups, bloggers, and armed insurgents over the past decade. Yet it will not necessarily guarantee his survival should a mass social eruption occur. A total shutdown of telecommunications did not stop the 2011 uprising. The Egyptian revolution was defeated on the ground before it was contained in cyberspace. Should a revival of street politics or industrial militancy occur as a result of deteriorating economic conditions, Sisi’s electronic arsenal will face a tough test.