Egypt sentences women to 2 years in prison for TikTok videos

By Declan Walsh

Armed with vaguely worded laws, Egypt’s guardians of conservative morals have long focused on belly dancers and pop stars in their efforts to police women’s behavior. Now they have hit upon a new target — young women who have become famous on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram.

In the latest episode of a long-running culture war, an Egyptian court Monday convicted two women, social media stars, on charges of “violating family values,” and sentenced each of them to two years imprisonment. The court also found three men guilty on charges of helping post the women’s videos, lawyers said, and received the same sentence.

The convictions were the first verdicts from a series of at least nine arrests since April of young Egyptian women who are prominent on TikTok, a wildly popular app. A third woman is expected to be sentenced Wednesday, when two more will go on trial on similar charges.

Social media is a highly contested and often perilous space in Egypt, where the government exerts tight controls over traditional media like newspapers and television, and has used courts to patrol digital platforms beyond its reach.

Numerous Egyptians have been jailed for posts on Twitter and Facebook deemed critical of the government, or of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and at least 500 news websites have been blocked.

In some countries, TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese company, has come under intense scrutiny over concerns that the Chinese government could use it to spy on users. President Donald Trump is considering steps to ban the app.

But in Egypt, the focus is largely on the app’s potential effect on the country’s moral probity.

Several women, mostly in their 20s, have become famous through their use of TikTok, in some cases earning thousands of dollars by monetizing their large followings. Some wear headscarves, a sign they come from conservative families.

The backlash has come from Egypt’s Parliament as well as the courts, with some lawmakers demanding that the government suspend TikTok, accusing it of promoting nudity and immorality.

Most of the women facing prosecution for their TikTok posts were put in jail without bail. Human rights activists launched a digital campaign last week to demand their release.

The two women convicted Monday — Haneen Hossam, 20, and Mawada el-Adham, 22 — gained millions of followers for lighthearted videos they posted to TikTok and other platforms that show them dancing, singing and clowning about. The clips are tame by social media standards, and nothing that would raise the eyebrow of a broadcast censor in the West.

The women wept as a judge at the Cairo Economic Court handed down the sentences, one of their lawyers said. They were also fined nearly $19,000 each.

Hossam, a second-year archaeology student at Cairo University, was arrested in April for a short Instagram video clip that prosecutors called “indecent.” In the video, she encouraged women to post videos of themselves to the app Likee, which pays users based on the number of views they receive.

Egyptian prosecutors accused Hossam, who usually wears a headscarf in her videos, of inviting young women to sell sex online. Her lawyer, Ahmed Abdelnaby, denied the charge.

“Nothing she said in that video violated the law,” he said. “The video is proof of her innocence, not the opposite.”

El-Adham, a former beauty pageant contestant with 3.2 million followers on TikTok, was on the run for days before her arrest in May, moving between houses in the Cairo suburbs and Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. During the trial, prosecutors slammed videos that she posted as “disgraceful and insulting,” her lawyer said.

Like many of the defendants, el-Adham, the daughter of a retired policeman, is from solidly middle-class family. She moved to Cairo from the coastal town of Marsa Matruh four years ago to pursue her university studies, she said in a television interview in 2018. At the time, she worked in sales.

In one of el-Adham’s last videos, before police tracked her down using her phone signal and internet usage, she posed smiling in a velour one-piece jumpsuit with her hair dyed blue.

“They have destroyed us, they have destroyed an entire family,” her older sister, Rahma el-Adham, said in a tearful interview with a television station Monday night.

The two women who are scheduled to stand trial Wednesday on similar charges are Nora Hisham and her mother, Sherifa Refaat, both of whom posted videos to TikTok. They were arrested Jun. 11.

Such prosecutions often start when activist lawyers, who present themselves as arbiters of public morality and protectors of Egyptian nationalism, file criminal cases accusing the women of offenses like “inciting debauchery” and “spreading fake news.”

The cases are then taken to trial by zealous public prosecutors who enjoy sweeping powers under a cybercrimes law passed in 2018, which provides for prison sentences and heavy fines for digital content deemed to violate public morals.

The criminalization of women for their TikTok videos stands in sharp contrast to the treatment of another group of Egyptian women who, earlier this month, were commended for their use of social media to highlight assault complaints, leading to an Egyptian #MeToo moment.

A flood of sexual assault complaints posted to an Instagram page about Ahmed Bassam Zaki, a 21-year-old business student, prompted the authorities to arrest Zaki and start an investigation. Since then, the government has introduced draft legislation that aims to protect the privacy of sexual abuse victims.

Egyptian activists say that social class partly accounts for the differing treatment of the two groups of women. While the TikTok women come from working- or middle-class backgrounds, Zaki’s accusers come from wealthier and powerful families that are less often the target of moral censure.

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