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Egypt’s TikTok Crackdown and “Family Values”

08/13/2020 . By Basil El-Dabh

This past month, the Economic Court in Cairo sentenced two women, Haneen Hossam and Mawada al-Adham, to two years in prison and a fine of 300,000 Egyptian pounds ($18,750) each, on charges of “violating family values and principles.” In a subsequent ruling, Manar Samy was sentenced to three years imprisonment and the same fine; the judge also set a bail of 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,250) to suspend her sentence pending appeal. All three women were prominent users of the social media platform TikTok—Hossam, 20, has almost one million followers, al-Adham currently has 3.2 million, and Samy has more than 185,000.

These sentences are the latest development in a wider campaign of arrests targeting young women accused of uploading videos to the platform that violate “family values,” going back to Hossam’s arrest on April 21. At least nine women have been detained thus far. In addition to the three that have been handed down appealable sentences, six other female TikTok users have been arrested, most of whom continue to be held in pretrial detention and investigated for similar charges.

The use of the novel platform—especially among women—has gained the attention of Egyptian authorities, who have sought to press morality-related charges on the defendants, regulate finances earned by influencers, and control independent expression.

Family Values and the Cybercrime Law

All women arrested in the crackdown have been accused of “violating the family principles of Egyptian society” under the country’s Cybercrime Law, passed in 2018. While this piece of legislation raised a number of other concerns in the lead-up to and aftermath of its passage, it is specifically the law’s 25th and 26th articles that have been invoked when charging the women using TikTok. Article 25, which prohibits the use of technology to “infringe on any family principles or values in Egyptian society,” stipulates a minimum penalty of six months in prison and a fine of 50,000 –100,000 Egyptian pounds (roughly $3,100–$6,200).

The law’s following article prohibits disseminating material that “violates public morals,” stipulating two to five years imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 – 300,000 Egyptian pounds (roughly from $6,200 to $18,700).

The recent spate of arrests and charges set a new precedent, and represent some of the first instances that the articles of this relatively new legislation have been applied.

Not only have these articles been invoked repeatedly in investigating and charging TikTok users, but also to charge users of other social media platforms. This past June, bellydancer Sama El-Masry was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 300,000 Egyptian pounds for “violating public morality,” also under the Cybercrime Law, for posting videos on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

This past February, blogger Anas Hassan was handed a three-year sentence and a 300,000 Egyptian pound fine for managing the “Egyptian Atheists” Facebook page. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), which represented Hassan in court, pointed to the Cybercrime Law (and specifically its 25th article, which was used to charge Hassan) as “the basis for the trials of many bloggers and content makers on the internet.”

A May statement by the Public Prosecution—which came at the heels of the initial TikTok-related detentions—illustrates its perceived role in enforcing the Cybercrime Law, likening the internet to a border that requires “full deterrence and protection” to address “a phenomenon abused by forces of evil” seeking to “destroy our society, demolish its values and principles and steal its innocence and purity…to push its youth and adults to the brink of destruction.”

Morality charges

Even before the existence of this law and the use of its 25th and 26th articles, vaguely-worded charges related to family values and public morals have commonly been used in the Egyptian legal system against women, marginalized groups, and others. The vague nature of such charges has allowed for them to be invoked in a range of contexts.

Such charges are intended to position the state as a guardian for public morals. In fact, Article 10 of the constitution conveys as much where it says that the state “protects [the family’s] cohesion and stability, and the consolidation of its values.”

Similar phrasing appears in other pieces of legislation, including the NGO Law that was passed last year. Additionally, Article 178 of Egypt’s Penal Code prohibits distribution or publication of content that is deemed “against public morals,” stipulating up to two-year prison sentence and a fine of 500,000 Egyptian pounds (approximately $31,200).

While homosexuality is not explicitly prohibited per Egyptian law, the state has on a number of occasions sought to apply Law 10 of 1951, which prohibits “debauchery,” along with articles 269bis and 278 of the Penal Code, which prohibit “inciting adultery” and “scandalous acts against pudency” respectively.

The Cybercrime Law and other pieces of legislation endow authorities with the power to censor materials and exercise a level of oversight over content in general, but morality-related charges are often brought as the result of complaints and filed lawsuits by private citizens.

In the lead-up to her arrest, Hossam, who is a second-year student at Cairo University, was investigated by the university because “her conduct of behavior was incompatible with public morals and university values and traditions,” as the University’s President Muhammad al-Khasht indicated in a statement.

El-Masry’s case was initiated by a lawsuit filed by television presenter Reham Saeed, seemingly as part of a dispute that had nothing to do with the charges of which she was found guilty.

At least two other cases linked to the Cybercrime Law—those of singer Shaima and Reda al-Fouly—also came about as a result of lawsuits filed by private citizens.

Many observers have also noted the class dynamic specifically present in the campaign of TikTok arrests and others when considering those whom have been arrested and the nature of the accusations against them. Statements and accusations directed at the women repeatedly referred to promoting prostitution, human trafficking, and “profiting off the internet.” This allows the prosecution to portray the cases not as a matter of public expression (or “family values”), but as cases against illicit means by which lower and middle class women were seeking to make money and recruit others to do the same. EIPR gender and human rights officer Lobna Darwish told Mada Masr that such accusations “[go] back to the general monitoring and ambushing of any content by women on the internet, which is always linked to their class position.”

Sherifa Refaat and her daughter Nora Hashem—popularly known as Sherry Hanem and Zomorroda respectively—were arrested in June and interrogated for “publishing scandalous videos that included sexual overtones” and were also accused by the prosecution of engaging in and inviting others to commit prostitution.

Following Hossam’s April arrest, a Public Prosecution statement accused her of a litany of similar crimes, which set the tone for the way in which these cases were discussed by state and other domestic media outlets—Hossam, however, was not found guilty of any such charges when sentenced.

Calls for freedom

Civil society organizations and political parties have expressed their concern over the recent crackdown. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms denounced the campaign of arrests of the women, calling it “restricting individuals’ freedom by imposing a specific moral conception or value system in a way that restricts their full enjoyment of their rights and freedoms protected by international rights law.”

EIPR has called for the immediate release of 17-year-old Menna Abdel Aziz, who was arrested after publishing a video in which she appeared badly bruised, accusing a man of raping her. While six others were arrested in connection to her testimony, this came along with Abdel Aziz’s detention in a separate case for “misusing social media, inciting debauchery, and violating Egyptian society’s values.” She has been held in a shelter run by the National Council of Women since May. EIPR, which represents Abdel Aziz in both cases, has requested that the Public Prosecution to drop all charges against her “so that she can begin recovering from the psychological and physical effects of the attacks that she was subjected to at the hands of the accused.”

Amnesty International has also called for the release of the women, calling the developments part of “new repressive tactics to control cyber space by policing women’s bodies and conduct and by undermining their ability to earn an independent living.”

A popular campaign, spearheaded by a group of women, has circulated a petition using the hashtag “with permission from the Egyptian family,” calling for the release of the TikTok defendants, also expressing objection to the vague nature of the charges against them. “If TikTok women are being punished for their content that ‘violates…Egyptian family values,’ could we at least know what those values are?” poses the petition, which has obtained tens of thousands of signatures so far.

Special thanks to TIMEP Egypt Legal Associate Yasmin Omar for her research support.