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Haneen Hossam, Mawada al-Adham
via Instagram/@haneenhossamofficial_ and @mawada_eladhm

Why the Egyptian government is jailing TikTok and Instagram influencers

Five women have been sentenced to two years in prison and fined £15,000 each for videos posted to their social media accounts

In July, Mawada al-Adham, a 22 year old Egyptian woman and TikTok star with over three million followers, was charged with “violating public morals” by a court in Egypt, alongside fellow Tiktoker Haneen Hossam and three other unnamed influencers. 

Accused of breaching Egyptian “family values” in videos uploaded on the app, most of the TikTok influencers were jailed without bail. Now, they have been sentenced to two years in prison, and will also face fines of almost $20,000 (or £15,300) each.

However, to many viewers, the content of al-Adham’s TikToks wouldn’t seem particularly unusual or explicit, mostly consisting of style videos, lip-syncing, and comedy skits. “We were left in utter shock,” her older sister, Rahma al-Adham, tells the BBC. “She did nothing wrong – my sister is not a criminal… She was just too ambitious. She dreamt of being an actress.”

While the case has stirred up a debate in Egypt, human rights groups have suggested that the women’s arrests are the latest attempt by authorities to restrict freedom of expression in the country. Here, Dazed explains Egypt’s ongoing war on TikTokers, and what the crackdown could mean for the country’s female influencers.

WHY ARE FEMALE INFLUENCERS BEING ARRESTED?

While Mawada al-Adham, Haneem Hossam, and three anonymous influencers were all arrested on broad charges of “breaching Egyptian family values”, the specific accusations vary. 

Arrested in May, al-Adham has simply been accused of posting “indecent” photos and videos to her social media accounts. Specifically, 17 images were shown by prosecutors, as evidence against al-Adham, after being leaked from Mawada’s phone when it was stolen last year, Amnesty International reports.

Meanwhile Hossam – a 20 year old who is reportedly a student at Cairo university, and was arrested in April – faces accusations of encouraging young women to meet older men and build friendships with them through another app, in exchange for money. 

Hossam rejects the claims of “inciting debauchery”, which in the same month were also levelled at an Egyptian belly dancer, Sama el-Masry, who was arrested for sharing videos described as “sexually suggestive”. Like al-Adham, the 42 year old claims that her phone was stolen, and the content was shared without her consent.

THE LAWS ARE VAGUE

Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, tells the BBC that the case shows signs of gender discrimination: “Women are only allowed to express themselves on social media according to the state’s dictations,” he says.

Lotfy also criticises the vagueness of the ruling: “The girls are accused of breaching Egyptian family values, but no-one has ever defined these values.”

Hossam, al-Adham, and the three other TikTokers involved in their case aren’t the only influencers that have been targeted in the crackdown, either. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 15 people – including a 17 year old girl who uploaded a video about being beaten and raped – have been arrested on similarly vague charges related to “indecency” since late April 2020.

WHO IS FIGHTING FOR THEIR FREEDOM?

Following the arrests of al-Adham and Hossam, activists launched a Change.org petition – that, as of writing, has over 140,000 signatures – to call for the freeing of the influencers and an end to the crackdown on women on social media. 

Human rights groups have also made appeals for the freedom of the women, including the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, and Amnesty International.

“Arresting women and girls on very vague grounds simply for posting videos and photos of themselves on social media sites is discriminatory and directly violates their right to free expression,” adds the senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, Rothna Begum.

With all five women appealing their convictions, the next hearing is set to take place September 14.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR EGYPTIAN INFLUENCERS IN THE FUTURE?

Even if the five TikTok influencers do still have a chance to appeal the court decision, and have massive support behind them from activists and human rights organisations, their arrests have disturbing implications for Egypt’s treatment of women online.

Amnesty International has framed the case in the context of Egypt’s ongoing restrictionss of online activity, particularly calleing out the authorities’: “use 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.”

“Policing women’s peaceful conduct online smacks of a new effort to control women’s use of public spaces,” adds Begum.

Lotfy adds that, regardless of the outcome of the case, a message has already been sent to women and girls in Egypt: “The authorities have made it clear: you are not free to say or do whatever you like, even if you are not talking politics at all. There are lines which are not to be crossed.”