Cairo cracks down on social media influencers

Internet personalities in Egypt, especially women, are the target of a government campaign against debauchery and other charges that rights activists say violate free speech.

al-monitor Hanin Hossam, a social media personality and student of archaeology at Cairo University who was arrested for "inciting immorality", speaks to fans in a video posted on YouTube May 2, 2020. Photo by YouTube/Hanin Hossam.

May 26, 2020

The Egyptian government has expanded its crackdown on free expression to target YouTubers and social media influencers, particularly women, detaining and prosecuting several in recent weeks. 

In the last few years, numerous bloggers and activists in Egypt have been arrested for posts on social media while others languish in arbitrary detention for online activities, according to Refworld.

On May 22, Tik Tok star Mena Abdel Aziz shocked her followers by posting a video on her social media accounts with a bruised face, announcing that she had been beaten and sexually assaulted by a man named Mazen Ibrahim, who had appeared with her in previous videos using a different name.

Her revelation was met with mixed reactions on social media. Many users accused her of provoking the act of violence by dressing and dancing the way she does. Others sympathized with her and called for Ibrahim’s arrest. Two days later, Ibrahim was arrested. But Abdel Aziz later posted another video denying her previous accusation of sexual assault, insisting the incident was just “a spat between friends.” 

The Interior Ministry has issued an arrest warrant for Abdel Aziz on charges of “inciting immorality” via her Tik Tok dance videos, according to Al-Watan.

The truth of what happened remains unclear, but the incident has highlighted a disturbing tendency by some to blame survivors of sexual assault in Egypt's conservative society. 

On May 14, 22-year-old YouTuber Mawada el-Adham was arrested for “inciting debauchery, violating family and societal values and administering social media accounts with the aim of publishing pornographic content.” A prosecutor had her detained for four days during the investigation. A Cairo court rejected an appeal for her release May 18 and extended her detention for another 15 days. 

Adham's arrest came after several legal complaints were filed by private citizens over “obscene” videos she published on the music video app Tik Tok, where she has amassed over three million followers. The videos show her lip syncing and dancing in what some Egyptian media outlets described as “suggestive” outfits. 

Critics fear the YouTubers’ potential influence on young followers, especially teenage girls. They warn that young girls watching such videos may be tempted to copy the way the social media icons dress and see the world.

Adham, whose family resides in the coastal city of Mersa Matrouh, west of Alexandria, left home when she was 19 and has since been living on her own in the upscale residential compound of Madinaty in northeast Cairo — an unconventional move, as most Egyptian girls traditionally live with their parents until they are married. Her videos published on Tik Tok, YouTube and Instagram have reportedly earned her millions of Egyptian pounds and a 2020 Mercedes sports car, which she shows off in one of her videos. Driving the car filled with red heart-shaped balloons, Adham says it is “a surprise birthday gift from an admirer.” 

According to media reports, police gathered incriminating evidence in her flat in the Cairo suburb of Madinaty. A large amount of cash in US dollars, mobile phones and a new car were all seized May 15. Two weeks earlier, security forces ransacked her home and found videos showing her wearing "immodest" clothes and performing "suggestive" gestures that "incite immorality," according to the Islamic network, Al-Majra.

This is not Adham's first arrest; less than two months earlier, on March 29, she and a female friend were taken into custody after defying the curfew imposed by the government since mid-March to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. She was accused of “inciting violation of the curfew” and released on bail of 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,261) — five times the fine normally imposed on curfew violators.

Adham's arrest is part of a campaign targeting YouTubers that started in late April. On April 21, 19-year-old Hanin Hossam, a student of archaeology at Cairo University known to her followers as “the Tik Tok girl,” was arrested on campus. Several charges were filed against her by private citizens accusing her of “inciting immorality” and “involvement in human trafficking” after she published a short video on Instagram inviting girls over 18 to join her network on an app called Likee. 

“All I am asking is that you turn on your camera and mic and engage in friendly conversations with your audience in a decent manner,” she says in the video. She promises that the live appearances will earn the girls between $36 and $3,000 each, depending on the number of viewers they attract. 

“Any member that jokes or behaves inappropriately will be blocked indefinitely,” she warns. 

Hossam's video provoked outrage on social media, unleashing a barrage of criticism against her and scores of calls for her arrest. She also came under fire from fellow YouTubers. Conservative users like Nasser Hekaya were particularly angered a veiled girl like Hossam appearing in videos wearing makeup and dancing. 

Egyptian media outlets joined the chorus of condemnation. Showing clips from Hossam's videos on his show on the satellite channel TEN, presenter Nashaat el-Deehy warned that Hossam's invitation poses a serious threat to girls. He called on the concerned authorities to block Tik Tok and other similar platforms to prevent such crimes.

Cairo University began an internal investigation. President Mohamed Othman vowed that Hossam would face severe punishment if found guilty of inciting immorality, as “such behavior runs counter to societal values and the university’s traditions,” he was quoted by the state-owned Akhbar el-Youm news site as saying.

Belly dancer Sama el-Masry was arrested April 24 after several lawyers filed legal complaints accusing her of inciting debauchery in “raunchy” videos she posted on social media. She has been held in custody since, but her trial has been postponed several times due to the closure of courts as a precautionary measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

According to lawmaker Ihab el-Tamawy, a member of the parliament's Legislative Committee, the Egyptian Penal Code criminalizes inciting debauchery on social media networking sites.

“Article 178 of Egypt's Anti-Cybercrime Law of 2018 stipulates punishment for the creation and administering of social media accounts that incite debauchery with jail terms of up to two years and a fine of no less than 5,000 Egyptian pounds [$315],” Tamawy told Al-Monitor. The country's newest cybercrime law has yet to come into force.

“If the crime is repeated within a year of the defendant's conviction, the accused would face another year in prison and a fine of up to 3,000 Egyptian pounds [$190], in addition to being placed under police surveillance for another year,” he added. 

The cybercrime law has been criticized by free speech advocates and rights groups including the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, which said the law “legalizes the blocking of websites and full surveillance of Egyptians.”

“It is disturbing that we are seeing a return of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Committees in society with conservatives taking it upon themselves to determine what women can or cannot wear or how they should behave,” lamented lawyer Azza Soliman, chair of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance. She was referring to the unofficial morality police — self-proclaimed morality committees that emerged under the Muslim Brotherhood to monitor citizens’ behavior and ensure it complies with Sharia.

Soliman expressed concern that “any citizen can accuse another of wrongdoing and intervene to correct their behavior.”

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