2021 HRP Summer Fellow Reflection: Amre Metwally JD’22

Metwally spent summer 2021 at Social Media Exchange in Beirut, Lebanon

Photo of 2021 HRP summer fellow Amre Metwally

In a time of dim prospects for democracy in the Arab world and elsewhere, defending and advancing digital rights has long become a crucial frontier for human rights advocates. The Beirut-based Social Media Exchange (SMEX) is one of the few locally rooted NGOs to have made it their mission to advocate for digital rights in the Arab world. From July to August 2021, SMEX was supported by HRP summer fellow Amre Metwally JD’22 in pursuing that mission.

For Amre, SMEX had “long been a dream organization” of his to work with. He joined the NGO’s legal unit, which had only been established shortly before his fellowship. As an Egyptian-American, Amre was able to employ his language skills to seamlessly join forces with his colleagues on projects in Arabic. He says the following on his two main projects:

“The first was a project called “Muhal” which is a database that tracks freedom of expression infringements and arrests across the Arab world. I tracked incidents in Jordan and Tunisia. Additionally, my colleague and I drafted a report that analyzed how provisions in Tunisian, Jordanian, and Lebanese civil and criminal code can be used as pretexts or justifications behind freedom of speech violations. In particular, I was interested in looking at blasphemy, defamation, and cybercrime provisions in Jordanian law that served as the basis for violations.

The second project was a multi-person project that is actually funded by Privacy International. We wanted to better understand biometric and digital identification programs in the Gulf region in the Middle East. I was responsible for first researching the technical, legal, and economic underpinnings of national ID programs for Bahrain and Qatar. From there, I worked with my colleagues to find common trends, identify important differences, and flesh out a template for country-specific analyses. I then finished by writing my country analyses for Bahrain and Qatar.”

Amre brought extensive knowledge and a refined understanding of the tension between free speech and the regulation of online hate speech thanks to years of working for the content policy team at YouTube. Personal connections from his professional past also proved beneficial when Amre was able to liaise between the SMEX team and former YouTube colleagues now employed at TikTok to resolve a burgeoning crisis.

On the idea of “international human rights work”, Amre’s views evolved regarding the feasibility of cross-border coordination between human rights organizations:

“One project for SMEX was to create an Arab Alliance for Digital Rights. At first I assumed that, despite geographic diversity, it should be somewhat easy to get alignment. I was woefully unprepared for how difficult it was! Even when everyone was aligned for the need for strong “human rights” protections and advocacy work when it comes to the digital space, there was so much that changed based on, for example, a specific country’s reality compared to a different country. It made me realize just how much “international” human rights work is still ultimately shaped by, and influenced by, domestic or national human rights ideas and priorities.”

The internship at SMEX has only cemented the path Amre was on already. Advocating for digital rights was the reason he joined Harvard Law School, and his writing on the issue has been published on Slate.