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June 15, 2014

Syria frees horse rider who rivalled Assad brother


Egypt to fight ‘destructive ideas’ through surveillance

Web privacy advocates concerned, students and activists alter strategies, as foreign companies offer Egypt advanced surveillance technology

Egyptian blogger Michael Nabil, was jailed for insulting Egypt’s armed forces but eventually pardoned (AFP)
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“A guy logs on to Facebook or Twitter, finds something that agrees with his politics, and if he can’t find anything, he just expresses himself,” says 23-year-old Mostafa from Giza. For young Egyptians pitted against the state, social media can provide a lively, irreverent and democratic political space away from the increasingly familiar spectre of the riot van or prison cell.

However, now Egypt’s Ministry of Interior is preparing an offensive against “destructive ideas” through a stepped-up surveillance programme, aimed at social media and private communications. Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim recently told Egyptian media that the system was “necessary to combat terrorism and protect national security…similar to that used in the US or the UK to protect their national security.”

According to the ministry, a new surveillance programme – the so-called Social Networks Security Hazard Monitoring (SNSHM) system – will combat terrorism and defend national security. However, web freedom and privacy advocates, as well as Egyptians online, are concerned that monitoring will go much further than that.

Indeed, digital rights and security researcher Ramy Raoof claims that Egyptian surveillance will effectively mirror the National Security Agency’s hugely controversial surveillance programme (PRISM)  – by trawling public and private communications and storing reams of information, all in the name of security, stability and President-Elect Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s war on terror.

“They want to be able to monitor all public content and private content and avoid any kind of surprises…or avoid any sort of positions or opinions that they’re not aware of,” explains Raoof. “Technically speaking, it’s almost copying PRISM in its functionality.” The Ministry of Interior will collect masses of content, dredging the Egyptian internet and storing and analysing the findings, a tactic Raoof calls “expansion on the tools they already have.”

And yet the aims of Egypt’s SNSHM system are apparently more far-reaching than that. While the new tactics have largely been presented as part of the ongoing crackdown against any form of dissent, the ministry is also setting its sights on online activity deemed immoral and disrespectful. One of the online vices the government named in an official document was “sarcasm”.

According to ministry tender guidelines leaked to the press on 1 June, surveillance through SNSHM will combat “destructive ideas” dangerous to Egyptian society, warning of the “strong effects the networks [have] on users, particularly juveniles and youths” – an indication as to the sorts of Egyptians who may be targeted according to the new law.

This includes standard security-minded concerns such as “encouraging extremism, violence and dissent” and “educating methods of making explosives and assault, chaos and riot tactics.” However, ‘ideas’ more open to interpretation are also named – “sarcasm; using inappropriate words; calling for the departure of societal pillars” and “taking statements out of context.” Online activity seen as insulting to religion, public morality and highly coveted political stability is highlighted.

The guidelines also suggest that monitoring communications on WhatsApp and Viber “will be a plus” for the future.

On Monday, ministry officials announced seven foreign companies had offered proposals to the Egyptian government to assist with surveillance of social media websites. They did not name the companies involved.

In the past, Egypt’s security apparatus were in contact with British tech firm Gamma International, responsible for Trojan-style surveillance software known as Finfisher. The programme allows authorities to inhabit computers and then monitor exactly how that computer is used, albeit on a targeted basis.

That deal-in-the-making came to light after activists got hold of paperwork of a tech proposal – not unlike the seven supposedly received this year – from inside Cairo’s State Security Investigations (SSI) service headquarters. Alongside police batons and torture equipment, activists found papers detailing a free trial offered by Gamma International to the Egyptian security apparatus to introduce Finfisher. This “high-level security system” would give authorities “full control” of the computers of “targeted elements.”

Egypt is known to have used other surveillance software: Bluecoat ProxySG, introduced in August 2012; and Remote Control System (or “RSC“) surveillance between March 2012 and October 2013.

“They have already been practising different scopes of surveillance,” says Raoof. “They might punish me or you for online content, they might not; but what they want to know is what you’re saying, what you’re doing, what you’re friends are doing. Whenever they need to punish you, they then have all this to do it.”

Others suggest the ministry may not have the capability to employ blanket surveillance over the internet.

“When you read the tender…they mention Google as a social network,” says Eva Blum Dumontet from Privacy International. “What that kind of reflects is that they have no idea what they’re talking about.” The same could apply to intended surveillance of privation communications. “Monitoring something like Viber and WhatsApp would require a completely different infrastructure.”

Still, the threat is real – perhaps most of all for young Egyptians, like Mostafa and Abdel Aziz, who are turning to the internet more for politics at a time when street protests can quickly attract violent responses from the police.

“If [someone] goes on an April 6 page, or whatever movement he’s into, and he likes that page, that’s exactly the kind of data that’s going to mark him,” explains Blum Dumontet. “Typically for these people this is very problematic,” as opposed to leading activists, who may well be on the state’s radar already. “The followers who are liking and sharing, they’re the ones who are really going to be exposed by this.”

The Interior Ministry’s own guidelines suggest this is not just about activism, however. Recent Egyptian social media highlights – including the anti-Sisi “Vote for the pimp” hashtag or the mockery of an apparently over-tanned addressing the nation after this month’s presidential elections – could potentially fall under the category of “dangerous ideas.” In the age of military chief-turned-president, Sisi, this kind of irreverent and satirical online activity could now be more problematic.

And so Egypt’s new internet restrictions could potentially put people like Abdel Aziz, another Egyptian in his 20s from Giza, at risk.

“We are criticizing more and more online,” he says. Abdel Aziz, who does not identify with any group or political movement, describes social media as a place to withdraw, now that street-level dissent is so risky. He is not ready to give up that space.

“Those of us who still believe in our ideas, we are always talking to each other about politics online, and the streets remain the same.”

“They want us to be afraid…But they will not stop us.”

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A historic opportunity for Kurds in Iraq chaos

ERBIL // An offensive by an Al Qaeda splinter group that threatens to divide Iraq has presented a long sought after prize to the country’s Kurdish minority: Kirkuk.

Forces from Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish area to the north on Thursday seized control of Kirkuk, which they claim as their historical capital.

The Kurdish fighters, known as the Peshmerga, say they took over to defend Kirkuk after Baghdad’s military crumbled in the face of a lightning assault by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and fellow Sunni militants. Iraqi soldiers say the Kurds ordered them to leave.

Kirkuk’s governor, Najmaldin Karim, said on Thursday that he asked the Peshmerga to “come and defend most of Kirkuk from the insurgents” because “the army fled”. The rapid collapse of the country’s military against the ISIL offensive, driven by Sunni-Arab anger at the Shiite-led government of the prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, has allowed militants to capture vast swathes of territory including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.

Whatever the case, analysts say Kurdish control of Kirkuk risks angering Iraq’s neighbours and aggravating domestic sectarian feuds.

The move may inflame separatist sentiment among Kurds who form large minorities in adjoining areas of Turkey, Syria and Iran. That would likely make it far more difficult for Kurdish leaders to cede Kirkuk and its large oil deposits to the government in Baghdad – that is, if it survives the ISIL onslaught, said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an expert on Iraq’s Kurds and columnist for the US-based Al Monitor website.

“It will mean that the Iraqi state has lost Kirkuk forever,” he said.

Ethnically and linguistically distinct from Iraq’s primarily Arab communities of Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds form close to 20 per cent of the country’s population of more than 32 million people.

The Kurds’ long-standing desire for independence has been fuelled by a history of repression, particularly in Iraq, where they have faced military assaults and chemical weapons attacks under the former dictator Saddam Hussein that rights groups have called acts of genocide. Under a policy of Arabisation, Saddam drove scores of Kurds from their homes in such strategic areas as Kirkuk.

The semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) became a federal entity after the 2003 US invasion that deposed Saddam, with its seat in Erbil and authority over a mountainous homeland with an estimated 45 billion barrels of oil. But its remit does not officially include Kirkuk, which is the capital of the Kirkuk governorate that has an oilfield with about 10 billion barrels of proven reserves.

“If things unfold with the disintegration and partitioning of Iraq, you can bet that the Kurds will do their best to make Kirkuk part of their homeland,” said Labib Kamhawi, an independent political analyst in Amman.

With Iraq’s future territorial integrity increasingly in question, Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University in Beirut, said the Kurd’s seizure of the city augurs more ambitious steps.

“This is a prelude to declaring statehood.”

In an attempt to reverse Saddam’s policies, the Kurds have over the past decade pushed for de facto political and economic control in Kirkuk and are believed to form a majority of the city’s population, which is estimated to be more than 500,000. That has raised tension with Arab and Turkmen residents, while a referendum on the area’s status that was planned after 2003 was never held.

Mr Khashan said the Kurdish move on Kirkuk also had irked Turkey, which has faced a domestic insurgency by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatists. Turks also have historical claims to the city and surrounding areas that came under British control after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Although the 1920 Treaty of Sevres on the division of the empire after the war included a provision for a Kurdish state, this was dropped in the 1923 Tretay of Lausanne that superseded it.

Despite growing ties with the KRG since 2003, including huge investments in everything from luxury stores to construction as well as deal to receive oil piped in from the area, Ankara would not hesitate to oppose Kurdish moves to claim Kirkuk, Mr Khashan said.

“The Turks have interests in Iraqi Kurdistan, yet they can’t accept the takeover of Kirkuk by Peshmerga,” he said.

Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said the seizure of Kirkuk was largely meant to shore up Kurdish defences against ISIL attacks. But that could change.

“As the rest of Iraq faces the serious prospect of disintegration, Kurds feel the need to hold their areas and may well eventually push for independence from what might become a failing Iraqi state, or at least, a state without legitimacy in the eyes of a large proportion of its population – the Sunnis,” she said.

Riad Kahwaji, the chief executive of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said ISIL militants would likely think twice before attempting to invade Kurdish areas. Kurdish fighters are well trained in mountain-guerrilla warfare after waging years of uprisings, and they are heavily armed with Soviet-made weaponry, including tanks and Grad rockets.

He estimated the Peshmerga could mobilise a force of 200,000.

“They are definitely much better organised and structured than the Iraqi army and they would pose a significant foe to ISIL,” Mr Kahwaji said.


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