Clubhouse: Why This Social Platform Scares Arab Regimes

Glittering virtual lounges are popping up, inviting people to participate, solely by audio, in debates on all subjects. And, in the Middle East, the powers that be disapprove of the elites' infatuation with a trendy new app.

In Egypt, the government has started to interfere in Clubhouse.
In Egypt, the government has started to interfere in Clubhouse.
Benjamin Barthe

RIYADH — A month ago, the up-and-coming app Clubhouse took the Middle East by storm. In just a few days, the latest gem from Silicon Valley had already earned its place in the crowded market of Arab social networks. Since this audio chat platform only runs on iOS for the moment, its use is restricted to iPhone owners, i.e. the relatively wealthy classes.

But in these circles, especially in Egypt and among the ultra-connected youth of the wealthy Gulf States, followers for this new app started to grow rapidly. By mid-February, Clubhouse was the most downloaded social media app in the Saudi Arabian App Store.

In France, this discussion forum still has a very strong "tech" image, which means that many digital professionals use it. But in the Middle East, its followers come from a much wider range of backgrounds.

It's for a simple reason: in these countries where social pressure and official censorship stifle dissenting voices and non-conforming opinions, Clubhouse provides a unique breathing space. In these virtual rooms, where anyone can initiate a discussion on a topic of their choice, or join an ongoing conversation, Arabs are rediscovering a taste for free speech.

Most of the topics discussed on the network are not controversial. Members talk about psychology, music, travel, cooking, start-ups, literature, etc. They talk about everything and nothing, in anything from a gossipy to academic manner.

"In the last few days, I listened to a discussion with people from the Gulf, who were talking about the person who has impacted them the most in their lives; there were 400 participants," says a foreign resident of the United Arab Emirates. "And I also followed a debate on Aristotle that was high-brow, with only 10 people."

But of course, a big part of Clubhouse's appeal in the Arab world is the opportunity to discuss all the subjects that are banned from the pages of newspapers, radio stations and television studios. As the powers that be have not yet found a way to lock down this new network, the three great taboos of the region (sex, politics and religion) are openly discussed.

For example, the highly sensitive issue of normalization with Israel — a step that the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco took in 2020 — is often discussed.

The three great taboos of the region are openly discussed.

"I attended a conversation on this topic with several hundred people from the Gulf," says Dima Khatib, a Palestinian journalist for Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar. "All of them were against the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, except for one dissenting voice. This shows that the pro-normalization climate fostered on Twitter does not correspond to reality."

In a group called "I am queer and I am Arab" held last week, participants came out in public, a statement that is often difficult to make even in Western countries and that the conservatism of Arab societies renders more complicated.

The Egyptian Clubhouse is filled with many exiles, often members or sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood (Islamist movement banned on the banks of the Nile), who do not hesitate to criticize President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

Another explosive topic discussed in another virtual room with Saudis and Emiratis is the stranglehold of the Gulf regimes on the Friday sermon. The text is provided ready-made to the imams of the mosques, for the great weekly prayer, with a ban on deviating from it.

By mid-February, Clubhouse was the most downloaded social media app in the Saudi Arabian App Store — Photo: Erin Kwon

"We are not farm animals who only eat and drink. It is our right to think and to form opposition as in any other country," says a Saudi woman in a conversation about the lack of civil rights in the kingdom.

"It's simple: There is a freedom of expression on Clubhouse that doesn't exist anywhere else," says Khatib.

But for how much longer? In a sign that the application scares autocrats, the Sultanate of Oman announced on Sunday that the country had blocked Clubhouse, following the footsteps of China, who blocked it in February. In the Emirates, discussions have not been accessible for several days, which is interpreted locally as an act of censorship without saying so openly. Fans of the platform can bypass the jamming with a VPN, but in doing so, they risk breaking the law: The use of such software is strictly codified in the UAE.

In Egypt, the government has started to interfere in Clubhouse. One of the most followed chat rooms in the country, "Open Mic Egypt," with tens of thousands of subscribers and initially devoted to personal development issues, now sees ministers and pro-Sisi deputies parade around.

"The room is being transformed into a state radio; the moderators receive instructions from the government," says an Egyptian journalist, on the condition of anonymity. The "fake news' machine has also been set in motion. Ahmed Moussa, a talk-show host famous for his connections with the intelligence services, claimed to have uncovered a "terrorist" network within the site.

Speakers threatened to report the participants to the authorities.

In Saudi Arabia, the authorities seem to want to repeat the way they handled Twitter with Clubhouse: saturate the network with trolls and informants to sow fear among users and ultimately rid the exchanges of any subversive element. This is what happened to a discussion on racism in Arabia, organized by Amani Al-Ahmadi, an exiled opponent of the regime in the United States. No sooner had it started than Twitter was flooded with screenshots and videos revealing the identity and thinking of the participants.

Another debate on Loujain Al-Hathloul, the feminist activist recently released from prison, ended similarly after speakers threatened to report the participants to the authorities.

"In the absence of any organization or ethical constraints, the acrimony these discussions can generate could harm society," says Salman Al-Dossary, a columnist for the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. For the Arab regimes, Clubhouse is a parenthesis that must be closed soon.

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Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.

Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."


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