Egypt’s rising digital authoritarianism

Egyptian influencers Haneen Hossam and Mowada al-Adham were sentenced to two years in prison on charges of violating public morals on the video-sharing app TikTok [AFP/Khaled Desouki]

Last week, an appeals court upheld the three-year sentence of Manar Samy, a young Egyptian woman charged with “inciting immorality and debauchery” for posting TikTok videos. Earlier, the appeal hearing of two other young female TikTok influencers, Haneen Hossam and Mawada al-Adham, who were sentenced to two years in prison on similar charges, was postponed.

All three women have been charged under Egypt’s draconian cybercrime law. If the Economic Appeals Court in Cairo does not overturn the absurd sentences of Hossam and al-Adham, this would mean this law, which was originally designed to silence journalists and political activists, has now been turned against ordinary, apolitical people.

Dangerously vague and overly broad legislation forms part of the wide toolkit for digital authoritarianism that violates internationally-recognised human rights principles in Egypt. They are putting women and members of feminist and LGBTQ communities at a growing risk of persecution.

New laws for digital repression

For decades, the Egyptian authorities have been on a warpath of censorship and repression of human rights activists and political dissidents. In recent years, the government has tightened its control over what Egyptians say and do online, passing an arsenal of repressive laws in the name of “protecting national security” and “fighting terrorism”. This includes the counterterrorism law of 2015, the go-to tool for prosecuting activists and human rights defenders.

The next step towards all-encompassing control of online spaces came in 2018 with the adoption of two more draconian laws: The media regulation law, which gives authorities more power to block and censor online media – including influencers with more than 5,000 followers – and the cybercrime law.

It is under this law that Samy, Hossam, al-Adham, and a number of other influencers have been charged in criminal cases for posting videos on TikTok. Most of these young women are from a lower socioeconomic class who are easy prey for prosecution, as they have few resources and no connections to defend themselves in court.

For expressing themselves on TikTok, Hossam and al-Adham were each sentenced to two years in prison in July and handed a colossal fine of 300,000 Egyptian pounds (close to $19,000). Samy received three years in prison, was ordered to pay the same exorbitant fine, and had bail set at 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,250), forcing her mother to sell home appliances to raise funds.

These sentences and fines are disproportionately punitive, but this is not the only reason they are significant. As noted by Egyptian law and technology organisation Masaar, the TikTok cases are among the first in which the cybercrime law has been used since it was passed in 2018. What happens in the courtroom with Hossam and al-Adham will set a precedent for future prosecutions under the law.

Double-dealing the morality card

According to the Egyptian government, the internet is an incubator of “forces of evil”, and therefore must be closely monitored. In November 2019, the public prosecutor set up a surveillance and analysis unit to spy on internet users, to watch what Egyptians say and do on social media platforms like TikTok.

The public prosecution hyperbolically described its mission as addressing the “potential dangers threatening our youth via digital platforms, which are not subject to any sort of supervision”. As they began to arrest TikTok influencers, the office of the public prosecutor stated Egypt now has, in addition to land, sea, and air, a new, fourth “cyberborder” – “one that necessitates the introduction of radical changes to the legislative policy as well as the administrative and judicial controls,” and which needs “full deterrence and prudence in protecting them, just as any other border.”

Pursuing an agenda of protecting “social and family values”, prosecutors have been swift to spy on, arrest, and prosecute Egyptian women for expressing themselves online. Yet at the same time, they have chosen not to investigate online reports of rape and sexual assault. The TikTok cases emerged almost around the same time Egyptian women started to share online stories of sexual violence they have faced.

In the most prominent instance, women’s reports of a violent Fairmont Hotel gang rape sent shockwaves through Egypt in July. The public prosecution ignored the constant calls by women and campaigners to investigate the case. When it finally took action, it also decided to detain three key female witnesses. These courageous women are now facing charges of inciting debauchery, drug use, and attempting to damage the image of the Egyptian state.

Egypt’s pro-state outlets pursued an aggressive smear campaign against them, disseminating their private information and videos online. These outlets reframed the rape allegedly perpetrated by privileged young Egyptian men into a story of sex parties and “homosexual perverts”.

Cracking down on freedom of speech

These arrests and the repressive media environment are curbing free expression, instilling fear of reprisal and stigmatisation among women and the feminist and LGBTQ communities in Egypt. People are shutting down social media accounts and online solidarity groups in fear of further crackdowns.

Women are forced to think twice before using the internet to get the truth out. As one female activist told The Guardian: “We went from being very proud to being terrified in a matter of a few hours. I’m afraid there will be more absurd arrests – it seems like they’re taking people to scare us into silence. The message from the state is: ‘You wanted a women’s revolution – this is what it looks like.'”

The targeting of female TikTok influencers and feminist and LGBTQ communities under poorly crafted, vague laws that criminalise free expression shows the Egyptian authorities have taken domestic repression to a whole new level. It is no longer only opposition politicians and journalists who are in the crosshairs, but also anyone who speaks up against injustice or who posts TikTok videos just for fun.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.