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Egypt: Phone of presidential hopeful 'hacked several times' using European spyware

Since Ahmed Tantawy announced in March that he would return to Egypt to try to oust President Sisi in next elections, he has faced mounting crackdown from Cairo
Ahmed Tantawy reportedly commissioned the Canada-based Citizen Lab to examine his phones (Ahmed Tantawy, Facebook)

Aspiring Egyptian presidential candidate Ahmed Tantawy’s phone was hacked by European commercial spyware several times after he announced his interest in running for the Egyptian presidency, a report by The Citizen Lab has found.

The research laboratory, which investigates digital espionage against civil society, among other issues, found that the former lawmaker’s phone had been infected with Predator spyware, according to a report it released on Thursday seen by Mada Masr. 

Speaking to MEE, Ahmed Abdeen, a political adviser on Tantawy's campaign, confirmed that the presidential hopeful had commissioned The Citizen Lab himself to scan his devices.

“We went to Citizen Lab to check the phone because we had some signs of hacking,” Abdeen said. “[There were] leaks, information from the campaign, and some issues [with] calls [received by] Ahmed’s phone, it was very noticeable the phone was not working normally,” Abdeen said. “[Citizen Lab] confirmed that the phone was infected by the spyware.”

Despite the hacking, Abdeen said Tantawy would still be pushing forward as a potential presidential candidate. “We will continue the race to the presidential elections until the end. Nothing can stop us,” Abdeen added.

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The Citizen Lab, an organisation affiliated to the University of Toronto, Canada, discovered that Tantawy's iPhone was targeted in the period between May and September 2023, and was potentially subject to hacks on other occasions, according to Mada Masr.

“I received repeated messages saying that my WhatsApp account had been hacked, and inviting me to open particular links to fix the hacks,” Tantawi told Mada Masr. “I would get the same messages via SMS.”

The Citizen Lab report did not name any specific party responsible for the hacks, according to Mada Masr. 

However, the same spyware was used to hack the phone of exiled politician Ayman Nour, and the host of a popular news programme who chose to remain anonymous in June 2021, according to the lab

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In March, Tantawy announced he was returning to Egypt on 6 May from Lebanon, in a bid to oust President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in presidential elections due to take place at the outset of 2024, and to offer a "democratic alternative" to the current administration.

A former left-wing MP and senior member of Al-Karama party, Tantawy left Egypt last year and has reportedly been based in Beirut, after security agencies pressured him to refrain from criticising the Sisi government.

The Egyptian government has faced mounting criticism by human rights groups over its treatment of political prisoners, with tens of thousands of people reportedly being held in overcrowded cells under brutal conditions.

On Wednesday, The Citizen Lab revealed another investigative collaboration with Access Now, which found that the iPhone of award-winning exiled Russian investigative journalist Galina Timchenko had with “high confidence” been infected with Pegasus spyware on or around 10 February. 

Predator was developed by a Macedonian start-up called Cytrox, which has a corporate presence in Israel and Hungary, The Citizen Lab said in a report published in December 2021 about the Predator spyware. 

Since Tantawy announced his intentions, he has faced mounting scrutiny from the Egyptian government. 

In May, two of his uncles were arrested, after the lawmaker announced he would run for the presidency.

Lawyers told Human Rights Watch in May that the Egyptian authorities also arrested at least 10 other men who were either friends or seen to be supportive of Tantawy.

All 12 people were detained for 15 days pending investigation on the charge of “joining a terrorist group”, while some of them faced additional charges of financing that group, “possessing publications that undermine public security” and possessing firearms, fireworks and explosives, a Human Rights Watch statement said. 

The news of the hacking comes as some sources told Bloomberg on Thursday that Egypt could hold its presidential elections before the end of 2023.

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