Egyptian authorities have been weaponizing legal articles to govern morality in society. Most notably, these are articles related to “debauchery” charges from the Penal Code and Law 10 of 1961, as well as articles related to family values from the more recent cybercrime Law 175 of 2018.
The target of those morality campaigns is anyone who wanders away from the carefully constructed state-sponsored social morality, as the word “debauchery” has been attached to several high-profile cases, like with the Cairo 52 case, Sama Al-Masry, and the “TikTok girls.” Thus, influencers, public figures, and members of the LGBTQ+ community all fell victim to those morality campaigns.
“Debauchery” as a criminal charge was introduced by Egyptian lawmakers in the 1930s, with the rise of political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood. This rise initiated a moral ideological battle between the Islamist group and the government, with each side trying to use morality to undermine the other.
Between the 1950s to the present day, the state has introduced several legal articles governing morality in the society, including the criminalization of sex work, the “violation of public morals,” leading to the most recent “undermining of social and family values” charges. Thus, the state worked through these policies to counter the Muslim Brotherhood’s speech on morality and to gain social legitimacy by presenting itself as the moral protector of the society.
Vagueness in law
“Debauchery” was a vague terminology from the beginning, a word that can be open to interpretation according to one’s own bias. The Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest court in the regular court system, failed to issue a clear and conditioned definition to the crime and even added to the vagueness when examining it under Law 10/1961 in 1975 and 1978.
The court moved to strike down, in the case of sex work, financial exchange as a core element for the crime. Instead, the law considers it a crime if a person is found to have performed the act repeatedly with different individuals, even without compensation. These core elements were described by the courts as being “indiscriminate” sexual practices and “habitual” practice of debauchery. The perpetrator can be arrested and prosecuted, while the definition of the crime by law is not conditioned.
Furthermore, the court on other occasions has failed to provide a conditioned definition of what constitutes a violation of public morals in Article 178 of 1952, and spreading debauchery and obscenity in Article 269bis of 2011. Maryam Chaine, a lawyer and researcher on sexual and bodily freedoms adds: “Debauchery became a go to charge whenever the state needed to assert its moral dominance in the society. Its vagueness and flexibility allowed it to be a great tool in the state’s moral arsenal.”
Social obsession with morality
In the early 2000s, Egyptian society was having a fundamental moral crisis, as the spread of new Western ideals caused some moral panic among the more traditional population. This led to massive arrest campaigns, as anyone who dressed or acted differently from what was socially accepted was labeled as gay, Satanist, and atheist.
During this period came the most notorious incident for the LGBTQ+ community to this date: the Queen Boat case, known as Cairo 52. In May 2001, 52 men were arrested at a nightclub and in the streets surrounding it. These arrests were an extension of the campaigns the state initiated against “Satanists,” as the authorities portrayed the men arrested as members of a “cult,” worshipping Satan and committing “debauchery” and homosexuality as a tribute to the new gods.
Mobilizing morality as a political doctrine
For years since then, all political sides took advantage of such incidents to flex some muscles over sexual and gender minorities. Those campaigns also served as diversion from the country’s worsening socioeconomic situation.
“For the first time in Egypt, gay marriages and dance shows under Sisi.” This headline by Rasad, a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated media outlet represents the new era of public morality politization. The incident in question was a video showing a group of men celebrating what was claimed to be a gay wedding. It took place one year after the 2013 coup and provided a prime target for the Muslim Brotherhood to portray the new regime as morally corrupt in order to gain social favors.
Again, like for the Queen Boat, the regime acted fast fearing the incident would undermine its image, and arrested all nine men for “debauchery charges” and sentenced them to three years in prison.
This incident was followed by several other ones, where both the media and the state conspired to boost the image of the regime as the country’s moral protector. It happened in 2014, when TV presenter Mona Iraqi took part to a police raid in a Cairo bathhouse, claiming it was a gay brothel, and in 2017, when media outlets launched a hate campaign against the LGBTQ+ community after a rainbow flag was raised in a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo.
The hate campaign resulted in mass arrests of people suspected of being “immoral,” as sex workers, LGBTQ+ people, and anyone who showed queer or liberal sexual attitudes were targeted. A victim of this hate camping was Sarah Hegazi, who took her own life in 2020 due to the trauma she suffered from her arrest after holding a rainbow flag during the Mashrou’ Leila concert.
Rebranding for the digital space
In Article 25 of the Cybercrime Law 178 of 2018, the word “debauchery” was replaced with an even vaguer terminology, falling under “family values and social tradition.” This was “just an extension of the pre-existing debauchery related articles in the Egyptian law. However, it is even less defined than other articles, something that assisted the state in asserting its moral control over the public ever since its introduction,” explained lawyer and researcher Chaine.
To enforce the Egyptian’s state control over morality in cyberspaces, the public production established the Communication, Guidance, and Social Media Department (CGSMD) in 2019. Officially, the new department was established to assist public prosecution with digital transformation, facilitate communication with the public, combat rumors, and safeguard national and social security. According to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), since its creation, the CGSMD’s Monitoring and Analysis Unit has filed several lawsuits against users of social media sites.
In May 2020, public prosecution declared that they would protect cyberspace from “evil powers.” In other words, public prosecution was officially monitoring internet users under the pretext of protecting national security, national social security, and the values of the Egyptian family.
On its social media pages, public prosecution began to lecture people on how to be moral and how to raise their kids to be moral, citing quotes from the Qur’an verses whenever possible. Furthermore, public prosecution encouraged citizens to report any incidents that violated their view of public morals. This caused a culture of social censorship and surveillance, where citizens would report on others for acts that may not be illegal, but were perceived by them as being immoral.
The effects of this are most clear in the TikTok girls’ cases, most notably Haneen Hossam, who was arrested in 2020 and charged with violating public morals and family values, inciting debauchery, and being involved in prostitution. Haneen was the first in a series of social media influencers’ arrests, based on citizens’ complaints. As of 2020, more than 10 TikTok influencers were arrested and charged with similar charges. Haneen was originally sentenced to 10 years in absentia for human trafficking charges, a sentence that was reduced to three years in prison at retrial.
These cases were welcomed by Egyptian media as an awakening of the legal system to protect social morality from corruption, proclaiming the public prosecution as the new moral protector of the Egyptian society. Furthermore, the judiciary just like public prosecution has cited Islamic values in its judgments. Islam Mohammed, a constitutional law Ph.D. candidate at the central European university said about this phenomenon: “Debauchery and other morality-related cases have been handled by different types of courts, such as State Security Courts, Courts of Misdemeanors, and Cairo Economic Court. Nevertheless, despite the type of court or the political context, since the Queen Boat case in 2001, the judicial reasoning in these cases often relies on Qur’an verses to affirm the immorality of the defendants’ actions, replacing the legal elements required to constitute the crime of debauchery with the immorality of the action.”
An end to the scapegoating policy
Morality is the state’s policy in which it scapegoats those who are different, to legitimize its ruling. “Debauchery,” “violation of public morals,” and “undermining family values” are all synonyms for the increasing governing of morality policy in Egypt.
From the criminalization of sex work to the prosecution of the LGBTQ+ community and the more recent TikTok girls, the Egyptian state has worked to undermine constitutional and international protections to prosecute people based on this skewed concept of morality.
The Egyptian state often targets those who belong to vulnerable communities which results in their further marginalization. Furthermore, the state used its media to demonize and dehumanize those communities to alienate even more the wider society from those communities.
Despite this grim reality, those communities together with actors in the national and international civil society are working to combat those discriminatory policies and advocate for laws based on equality, not morality, as it is an issue that intersects with a wide range of human rights.
Egypt is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which emphasize the protection of human rights that are often being violated in these cases, most notably the right to privacy and freedom of speech. Therefore, the Egyptian state has both constitutional and international obligations to reform those laws in question and to reform its overall policies regarding morality.
Furthermore, those morality-related cases expose a deeper issue with the rule of law in Egypt, where judicial agencies, such as the public prosecution, are not impartial and assume a role that services the agenda of the state. The judiciary, which is supposed to safeguard the citizen from state abuse, has allowed itself to be part of a moral campaign where vague interpretation of the law intersects with the judges’ biases.
International aid organizations and donor countries also have a role to play. They should lobby the Egyptian government to reform its policies, something that is yet to happen. However, geopolitical importance and economic ties should not be the way of demanding reform on human rights issues.
Nora Noralla is an Egyptian human rights researcher and consultant focusing mainly on issues of sexual and bodily freedoms as well as Islamic Sharia and human rights in the MENA region.