Paris – As President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi continues his crackdown on journalists, human rights activists and lawyers, media outlets and other academics, the latest target under the President’s regime has been female TikTok influencers.
In recent months, women with sizable followings on TikTok have been targeted by state authorities who have accused them of endorsing immorality and debauchery.
The crackdown on female TikTok influencers began on 23 April, 2020 with the arrest of Haneen Hossam, a university student with more than 1.3 million followers who was accused of “inciting debauchery” after posting a video that encouraged young women to make money through live streaming. The TikTok influencer offered women over 18-years-old the opportunity to make roughly $2,500 to $3,000 through live video chats with strangers. In the video, Hossam added, “You will be able to form friendships with people in a respectable way.” Drawing many hateful and sexist comments online, many accused her of promoting prostitution. Ghadeer Ahmed, a high-profile Egyptian feminist came to Hossam’s defence claiming that she had been targeted by authorities in various bullying campaigns. “This video went viral and some TV hosts and YouTubers started to incite against her saying she wants to hire young Egyptian women as ‘digital sex workers,’ which is illegal and goes against the so-called public moralities,” she said. Before Hossam’s arrest, the influencer released another video professing that she did not call for ‘debauchery’ adding, “Many famous actors use TikTok. Does this mean they work in prostitution?”
A second case involving Mawada El-Adham saw authorities detaining the 22-year-old TikTok influencer for posting videos that claimed to violate societal principles. El-Adham has been accused of establishing and managing accounts on social media with the aim to promote acts which violate the “family principles and values of Egyptian society.” Egypt’s Ministry of Interior declared that Eladhm was arrested on charges of “violating family values” and “establishing, managing and using websites and social media accounts with the aim of committing those crimes.”
Both Haneen Hossam and Mawada El-Adham are accused of violating family principles and values in Egypt as well as inciting debauchery. They are also being charged with creating private accounts online for “immoral purposes.” Together, they are facing nine charges – including three felonies. Their offenses include, “participating in soliciting and exploiting girls through live broadcasting,” “violating the values and principles of the Egyptian family,” “human trafficking,” “sharing videos that incite immorality in order to increase their viewership and followers” and “encouraging teenage girls to publicly share videos to theirs in terms of immorality.” They have also been charged with “fleeing justice” and “attempting to disguise and encrypt their phones and social media accounts.”
During a first hearing on 15 June, 2020, El-Adham claimed, “I didn’t do anything that deserves this punishment. All of Egypt is on the app posting content.” If they are both found guilty of publishing inappropriate images and videos, they will receive jail sentences of up to two years and will be forced to pay a fine of up to 10,000 Egyptian pounds (€540). If they are both found guilty of promoting prostitution through social media, they could be expected to do a prison sentence of up to three years.
Potentially the most disturbing case of this current crackdown on women influencers has been Menna Abdel Aziz’s sexual assault in May. The 17-year-old social media influencer posted a video on TikTok with her face bruised saying she had been gang-raped by a group of young men. Egyptian authorities responded by arresting her, along with her six alleged attackers, all of whom were charged with “promoting debauchery.” The prosecutor general said in a statement, “She committed crimes, she admitted to some of them. She deserves to be punished.” Her immediate release was called for by the non-government Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and it was not until mid-June that she was transferred from custody to a rehabilitation centre for female victims of abuse and violence. The prosecution has not disclosed details about her case and her arrest and charges were elicited due to her appearance and choice of clothing which was deemed sexually suggestive and socially subversive.
Activists in Egypt have launched a digital campaign calling for the immediate release of all women arrested on debauchery charges. Egyptian prosecutors have ordered the detention of 9 female TikTok influencers based on the country’s contentious ‘Anti-Cyber Crime Law’ which criminalizes certain content and any act deemed to violate the familial values and principles of Egyptian society. The nine women currently detained include, Haneen Hossam, Mawada El-Adham, Renad Emad, Menna Abdel Aziz, Sherry Hanem, Nora Hesham, Manar Samy, Hadeer Hady and Bassant Mohamed. The petition calls on Egypt to stop criminalizing diversity and to stop the systematic and organized crackdown of women on TikTok. “It starts with men creating content on YouTube picking on women users who do not align with their moral stance. When these men start calling women out, defaming them and threatening them with imprisonment, they enable a culture of violence that normalizes and justifies punishing named women.”
The Francophone Association for Human Rights (AFDH) believes that these arrests are following a continuous pattern of crushing online dissent and freedom of expression under the guise of cyber crime violations. The internet has become an invaluable tool for creating opportunities that might not otherwise be available to women of a certain class or status. AFDH thinks that this systematic crackdown on women using TikTok is denying women their right to their bodies and their right to expression through their clothing and their social media content. Egypt is not as conservative as it likes to advertise – and most importantly – the Sisi regime is not the defender of virtue ethics either. The reason behind the arrests of these female influencers is rooted in politics; the less people expressing their opinion the better. The current regime chooses what is prevalent; whether it be politics one day or relationships the next. The targeting of women who appear to have violated public morals has sparked outrage both domestically and internationally, however many in Egypt continue to encourage the arrests. We fear that the conflict between freedom of expression and the regime’s godless and un-islamic stance will reach no compromise and women on TikTok will continue to be unfairly targeted. We believe that the regime’s stance on conservative values is a way to show up as the defender of traditional values and religion and deprive the Muslim opposition from more ammunition against the regime.