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Egypt imprisons female TikTok influencers

Alla Juma | Kersten Knipp
July 29, 2020

A court in Cairo has sentenced six young female bloggers to prison — not for political offenses, but for violating "public morals." Activists have called the ruling an "outrageous attack on civil liberties."

This combination of pictures taken shows a woman watching videos of video of (left to right) Egyptian influencers Haneen Hossam and Mowada Eladhm
Image: AFP/K. Desouki

Two years in prison, plus fines of almost €16,000 ($ 18,800) each: that was the verdict handed down to two young Egyptian influencers by a Cairo court earlier this week. Three other young women were also sentenced to two years in prison, and on Wednesday another woman was fined and sentenced to three years for a similar conviction.

In their rulings, which can still be appealed, the judges accused the defendants of posting "indecent" dance videos and "violating the values and principles of the Egyptian family." The women incited "debauchery" and also encouraged human trafficking, according to the prosecution's statement, which specifically named two of the defendants: Haneen Hossam, a 20-year-old student, and Mawada Eladhm, 22.

Read more: Egyptian LGBT+ activist Sarah Hegazy, jailed for waving rainbow flag, dies at 30

Both women are active on TikTok, a Chinese-operated platform for short mobile phone videos popular among young people. The women had garnered more than a million followers with their short 15-second clips, which showed them posing in or next to sports cars, dancing in their kitchens and making harmless jokes. The two women are often seen in heavy makeup, for Egyptian standards, sporting bright red lipstick and tight clothing. In photos posted to Twitter, however, they are bit more reserved. Hossam always wears a headscarf, while Eladhm goes bareheaded.

In their videos, they dance like young people used to do in clubs in the West, and in Egypt's elite discos, before they were shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic — enjoying the music, enjoying life. But in Egypt's predominantly conservative society, many people reject such displays.

Charges of 'inciting debauchery and immorality'

In Egypt, people can be convicted on charges as vague as "abuse of social media" or "inciting debauchery and immorality." All the women wanted to do was attract more followers, according to Eladhm's lawyers. 

"They just want followers. They are not part of any prostitution network, and did not know this is how their message would be perceived by prosecutors," Samar Shabana, a member of the legal team, told international news agencies on Monday.

Read more: Coronavirus fuels domestic violence in the Middle East

But the women were accused of promoting prostitution because they encouraged their followers to publish the videos on the Likee sharing platform, which pays authors based on the number of clicks they get.

How Does TikTok Make Money?

There is nothing formally wrong with the verdict, said Nihad Abuel-Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights and a lawyer. She told DW that the verdict is based on article 2 of the tightened communications legislation that has been in force since 2018. Under the law, charges can be brought against anyone who violates alleged social or family values. Abuel-Komsan argued, however, that the law is "wrong, erroneous and should be abolished."

Sentencing is an 'outrageous attack on civil liberties'

"The arrest and prosecution of Egyptian bloggers just because they posted videos of themselves dancing or singing is an outrageous attack on civil liberties," said Vanessa Ullrich, a human rights expert at Amnesty International Germany. "The ruling shows how the Egyptian authorities use trumped up and vague charges like 'violation of family values' and 'incitement to debauchery' against women influencers to control online platforms and strengthen patriarchal social and legal systems," she told DW.

Supporters of the two women have been protesting the verdict online, with an appeal in Arabic and English on the Change.org petition platform. Among other things, the initiators point out that some of the convicted women come from lower socioeconomic classes.

"We fear and worry about this systematic crackdown which targets low income women," reads the petition. "Because of their class, they are being punished, and denied their right to own their bodies; to dress freely; and to express themselves."

They believe poorer citizens are being targeted because they lack the means to defend themselves. This week's convictions bring to mind the case of Menna Abdel-Aziz, a 17-year-old Egyptian woman who in May, her face battered and bruised, posted a TikTok video in which she said she had been gang raped by a group of young men.

Read more: Women's rights in Islam: Fighting for equality before the law

The next thing she knew, she was arrested, along with her six alleged attackers, and accused of "inciting debauchery and violating Egyptian family values," charged for her appearances on social media, her tight clothing and her dance moves.

What are Egypt's 'family values'?

The influencers were convicted on the basis of a law that invites defamation, according to the Change.org petition. "If Tik Tok women are being punished for their content that 'violates the Egyptian Family Values', could we at least know what are those values?," reads the petition. "Which family do we mean? Would these values differ if 'the family' was rich or poor? Well-known or not? If the person accused was a man or a woman?"

Read more: Activist Abdel-Fattah's arrest highlights plight of rights workers

Ullrich of Amnesty International criticized the legislation as yet another instrument used by the state to take action against citizens it has deemed undesirable. Until now, the authorities have relied on charges like "terrorism" and "spreading fake news" to put pressure on journalists, human rights activists and political protesters. "Now they are resorting to charges of 'debauchery' in order to fully control the digital realm through repressive and gender-specific tactics," said Ullrich.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East