On 27 July, a court in Cairo sentenced five young people to two years’ imprisonment, and fines of 300,000 EGP (£14,500) each on charges of violating family values and principles.
Their crime? They are social media influencers.
The two women in the group, Haneen Hossam and Mowada el-Adham, had become famous for posting content on TikTok, the popular video-sharing app.
Hossam, a 20-year-old college student, was arrested in April after she posted a video on the app Likee telling her 1.2m followers that they could work from home and earn money by making live videos and talking to strangers. The prosecution accused Hossam of committing human trafficking and inciting young girls to commit inappropriate acts online. El-Adham, who has millions of followers on TikTok and Instagram, is known for her sometimes satirical lip-syncing and dance videos. The 22-year-old was arrested in May on charges of violating family principles and values in Egyptian society and establishing, managing, and using social media to commit those crimes, and she is appealing her case in August.
Three men were also sentenced as co-conspirators this week’s case for helping Hossam and el-Adham maintain their social media presence.
Hossam and el-Adham are the first to be sentenced from a group of at least nine women – dubbed Egypt’s TikTok girls – who have been arrested since April. Others will go on trial for similar charges this week. The cases brought against them are based on articles in Egypt’s cybercrime law, which was ratified in August 2018. Rights groups have condemned the law since it was drafted, and it has been since used to jail journalists, bloggers and numerous Egyptians who have criticized President Sisi on Facebook or Twitter.
The recent spike in cases brought against young people on TikTok and other social media platforms is part of a larger government aim to root out and stifle free expression. Egypt’s cybercrime law is a particularly powerful tool for doing so in a country where more than 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 30, and the amount of time that citizens spend online continues to increase year over year.
In the hands of an innovative and enthusiastic prosecutor, the vague cybercrime law can be interpreted to ensure no unwanted online expression goes unpunished. The recent arrests also show that the regime is eager to crack down on women and other marginalised groups who connect with their communities online.
The cases against Egypt’s TikTok girls have garnered thousands of followers of their own both in Egypt and abroad. Those who are concerned with the human rights implications of the cases warn that the prosecutor’s office is poised to compel el-Adham to undergo a “virginity test” to determine whether she has ever had vaginal intercourse. El-Adham refused to consent to the procedure when the prosecutor requested it earlier in the case. According to the World Health Organization, there is no evidence that the invasive forensic medical procedure can prove what it claims to, and the WHO condemns the continued use of the procedure in Egypt.
Beyond rights infringements, many have also been quick to point out the blatant misogynist double standard in the way that Egypt polices sex crimes. Women are sentenced to years in prison for dancing on TikTok, while high-profile men weather repeated accusations of sexual harassment with few if any repercussions.
The result of this week’s case may not come as a surprise to Egyptians, but it sets troubling legal precedents. It also speaks to the state’s desire to weaponise the internet against its citizens, both through the prosecution of online expression and as a tool for entrapment.
The worldwide web can be an oasis for free expression, especially among marginalised groups. But, for the Egyptian regime, that only makes the web the next frontier over which to establish its control.
The author of this article is using a pseudonym