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The taxi meter and the red line

All the taxicabs in Cairo are equipped with taxi meters, most of them huge, baroque mechanical devices like the one pictured above. It wasn’t until my fourth cab ride, where we found a cab with a digital meter, that I discovered that the meters actually worked: that is to say, as the vehicle moved forward, the meter progressed from an initial fee of 60 piasters, up to a full Egyptian pound as we cruised around town. (The egyptian pound is trading at about 6.2 to the dollar, so those 60 piasters are about ten cents, US.)

The reason it had taken me this long to notice that the meters were not purely ornamental is that we’d never paid a cab driver on the basis of the meter. In what I’m used to thinking of as developing world standard operating procedure, my companions and I negotiated all our fares ahead of time, leaning through the passenger side window and flashing five or ten fingers at each other until something approaching consensus is achieved. Most rides seemed to cost five or ten pounds – Egyptian friends would tell us not to pay more than seven pounds for a particular route, but officious rest room attendents got all my pound notes, so I rounded up to the nearest five. But the meter generally read anywhere from a quarter to a tenth of the fee we paid.

This isn’t a bad metaphor for how Egypt works. While there are traffic lights at most of the major intersections, traffic is actually controlled by whistle-wielding policemen. Tired of waiting for the “light” to change? It appears to be perfectly acceptable to berate the policemen, and often seems to help. Lane lines? They should be interpreted purely as suggestions. Admission to the museum? Negotiable for you, my friend. The laws appear to be, quite literally, made to be broken.

Talking to human rights organizations in Egypt, I’m getting a sense for why this improvisational approach to the legal system can be so dangerous. Laws – especially telecommunications and IT laws – are written so broadly, they can be interpreted so that anything is illegal. One current law might (or might not) ban all encryption, hardware or software. An unintended consequence of this law would be the illegalization of any browser that supports secure transactions, which is not what the government wants to do. The legality of voice over IP is similarly unclear.

How you respond to this ambiguity seems to depend on who you are. The geeks we’ve encountered are generally optimistic – they seem to think that VOIP will be legal by 2005, and are happy to learn (and experiment with) fun toys like Skype, which has two great government-scaring tastes that taste great together: encryption and VOIP.

The human rights activists? Not so optimistic. They talk about “the red line”… which you really, really don’t want to cross. The consequences can include arrests and beatings at the hands of the police. The editor of a major opposition newspaper, Abdul Halim Qandil, was recently attacked, beaten, stripped naked and left on a major highway outside of Cairo, evidently as a message that he should stop talking about the dangers of having President Mubarak’s son succeed his father. (The first person who told me this story, a reporter for Al-Hayat, was actually telling me the story as a bit of good news: most Egyptian newspapers wrote about the kidnapping, and were free to speculate on why he had been detained and beated. That, evidently, didn’t cross the red line.)

Two groups that definitely cross the red line: Islamic extremists, and homosexuals. (I don’t even want to think about the problems gay Islamic extremists might have.) We heard multiple reports that sites for groups like Muslim Brotherhood are blocked within Egypt. And we heard a number of stories about the Internet being used to entrap gay men in a major crackdown in 2001. “Internet police” began frequenting chat rooms where Egyptian gay men made contact, set up rendezvous, and arrested men when they arrived under a (you guessed it) incredibly vague prostitution law preventing “perverted behavior”. (One of the major arrests – of 60 men – happened on a Nile River boat that my hotel room overlooked the past few days…)

The “red line” works even without being clearly articulated because people are scared of the consequences of crossing it, and of being discovered crossing it. There’s some fear within the human rights community in Egypt that email is being read by the government. I did a quick couple of experiments and discovered that there’s a very real possibility that much, or all, of mail traffic going out of the country is being diverted through a server that might be government-monitored. (For the geeks out there – SMTP traffic appears to be redirected to a server owned by an ISP with tight government ties. I sent a couple of emails that bounce – they were not bounced by my server (cyber-mail.law.harvard.edu) but by link.net, a server my mail should never have been touching…) If all outgoing email is being redirected to a server the government can access, that might be oddly reassuring – it could be hard to watch the mail from an activist in the resulting crush of documents… but the mere redirection of the email has had me watching what I said in outgoing emails…

And holding off on putting up this post until I left Cairo and flew to Amman, where I am now.