“Black February” – Suppressing Freedom of Expression of Egyptian Students as Seen on Social Media

Michael Barak reviews the positions of Egyptian social media users regarding the publicized arrest of an opposition leader, and the threat of arrest against students accused of having contact with him.

A poster depicting Al-Sisi executing a man whose shirt reads "Human Rights"
A poster showing Al-Sisi executing a man whose shirt reads "Human Rights." He is standing on a ballot box labelled "Democracy.” This picture was shared with the hashtag "#Election under threat," from Twitter.

On February 22, the Egyptian Criminal Court published a list of individuals and organizations associated with terrorism, which included the names of four Egyptian students, members of the Islamic Strong Egypt Party (Misr al-Qawiyya), who were claimed to have participated in the plot of the party’s leader, ‘Abd el-Moneim Abu al-Fotouh, to incite the street and harm Egypt’s national security. The classification of the students as terrorists sparked strident discussion among religious and left-wing students on social media. The discourse was characterized by revulsion and disgust at the Egyptian government’s policy of suppressing freedom of expression, and the opposition’s that its voices are being silenced. The discourse also brought to the surface young leftists who declared that they are no longer willing to accept the existing situation, and are seeking ways to replace the regime, including by means of inciting the Egyptian street.

The Strong Egypt Party was founded in 2012 by al-Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who ran for president in 2014, and was arrested by Egyptian security forces on February 14, 2018 upon his return from London. According to a statement from the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior, al-Fotouh is accused of having links with terrorist elements in London and elsewhere, belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, spreading lies about the regime in interviews with hostile media, and attempting to exacerbate the rift in Egyptian society.[1] He was arrested because of an interview he gave to al-Jazeera in London, in which he criticized the policy of the Egyptian regime that does not allow for democratization. Most likely the arrest was a result of the regime’s heightened sensitivity to critical voices prior to the presidential elections held in late March, when al-Sisi was re-elected.

Supporters of the regime backed the arrest and hurled a variety of accusations at al-Fotouh. For example, one user wondered how he dared describe himself as an Egyptian patriot while “sitting with people plotting to destroy Egypt and the homeland.”[2] In contrast, al-Fotouh’s supporters and family refuted the accusations, and launched a campaign for his release. For example, they claimed that the purpose of his trip to London was to participate in a conference on Islam rather than meeting with subversive elements.[3] Human rights groups joined in demanding his release and were, in turn, accused by al-Sisi’s supporters of working on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood.[4] Surprising reinforcement was received from left-wing activists who expressed solidarity with al-Fotouh, despite their disagreement with his path, and demanded his release immediately.[5] In the eyes of these users, the policy of oppression showed the weakness of the regime, and its fear of losing of power in the upcoming elections.[6]

The inclusion of the four students on the terror list was also met with broad opposition. In response, the Strong Egypt party announced a freeze on its activity at all universities until further notice. Omar Khattab, one of the four listed students and secretary-general of the party’s university branches, noted on his Facebook page that he has been involved in lawful political activity on campus for five years, and was surprised by the court’s decision to include him in the terrorism lists. He also stressed that he was willing to face the legal authorities and clarify the issue, declaring: “I am not running away.”[7] In this case, too, the left joined the protest, which included a petition condemning the regime’s activity against the students, signed by 129 activists, including journalists, students and lecturers, as well as five left-wing parties, among them the Stream of Honor (Tayyir al-Karama), Bread and Freedom" (Al-‘Aysh Wal-Hurriya), and the Socialist Revolutionary Party (Al-Ashtrakion al-Thawrion). It was distributed using the hash tags “Political activity is not a crime” and “Freedom for students.”[8] The petition stated, “The organizations and individuals who signed this proclamation condemn the security attack... carried out by the regime against students, parties, and student associations in order to silence any opposition voices. This is one many measures taken to control thought and politics at the university....”[9]

Along with the frustration with the regime, the discourse also featured self-flagellation. Left-wing students expressed remorse for voting for al-Sisi in the 2014 presidential elections, and accused themselves of having helped “the birth of a dictatorial regime.” They warned that continuing to stifle freedom of expression would be detrimental to al-Sisi, who would have to deal with the silenced, suppressed voices that would eventually mobilize to defeat him.[10] Other users severely criticized the media for its silence on the issue, and for not accurately depicting reality. For example, a user from Sohag denounced the mobilization of the Egyptian media to the regime’s propaganda apparatus, and complained that it was violating its true role and had become nothing more than a tool of the government.[11] Users joked that the authorities might soon order their arrest. [12]

In addition to denunciations and expressions of anger, several young students from the left-wing party Tayyir al-Karama stood out by making operative proposals to change the status quo. They proposed forming a mechanism for coordination between the opposition groups to facilitate varied responses to the government’s oppressive actions, including the joint publication of a black poster; flying black flags at all the institutions of opposition parties across the country as a sign of mourning for the existing political situation; announcing that asylum would be granted in party buildings; establishing a joint committee of political organizations to examine developments and ways of responding to the regime and its acts of oppression; as well as trying to instigate popular protests by declaring civil disobedience as a first step toward provoking the Egyptian street.[13] The young people expressed concern that they might be imprisoned for these statements, but made it clear that they are willing to take that risk and act to change the existing order.

The discourse on social media points to an atmosphere of gloom among young Egyptians faced with the regime’s continued suppression of freedom of expression, which made the headlines with al-Fotouh’s well-publicized arrest. It is evident that the arrest awakened young people’s desire to oppose this policy by uniting the ranks of the opposition forces, and investing efforts in mobilizing Egyptian public opinion against the regime. However, it appears that this initiative is currently limited to the online realm.


[1] @MoiEgy, Facebook, February 15, 2018.  Last accessed April 12, 2018. Thus, for example, Al-Fotouch in a series of meetings with senior members of the Brotherhood in Germany, Britain and South Africa, including one with Dr. Joseph Nada, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and Dr. Ibrahim Menir, deputy leader of the movement.

[2] AJ+, Youtube.com, February 12, 2018.  Last accessed April 12, 2018;  Aljazeera Mubasher, Youtube.com, February 13, 2018.  Last accessed April 12, 2018.

[3] @MisrAlQawia, Facebook, February 16, 2018. Last accessed April 12, 2018. See also @DrAbolfotoh, Facebook, February 13, 2018.  last accessed April 12, 2018;  Twitter, #الحرية_لابو_الفتوح

[4] @Aldaheg, Facebook, February 15, 2018.  Last accessed April 12, 2018.

[5] For example: @Khaled.basion, Facebook, February 28, 2018. Last accessed April 12, 2018.

[6]Twitter, انتخابات _تحت_التهديد#. Last accessed April 15, 2018.

[7] @amrkhattab0, Facebook, February 24, 2018. Last accessed April 12, 2018.

[8] Twitter, #الحرية _للطلاب#; السياسة_مش_جريمة. Last accessed April 12, 2018.

[9] @khaled.basion, Facebook, February 28, 2018.  Last accessed April 12, 2018; @Hamdeen.Egypt, Facebook,  March 1, 2018.  Last accessed April 12, 2018.

[10] @AhmedElbaqry, Twitter, February 26, 2018. Last accessed April 12, 2018.

[11] @DrAbolfotoh, Facebook, March 20, 2018.  Last accessed April 12, 2018.

[13] @khaled.basion, Facebook, February 20, 2018. Available at  . Last accessed April 12, 2018;  #السياسة_مش_جريمة, Twitter.