Decoding cyber borders

On May 2, 2020, the Public Prosecutor listed cyber spaces as borders in addition to the traditional ones (air, land, and sea), drawing public attention to law 175 of 2018, known as Cybercrime Law. This move extended state control to the internet in the name of border security. In an earlier attempt to control and de-escalate online mobilization that geared mass protests in September 2019, the Office of the Public Prosecutor established a Social Media Monitoring Unit in November of the same year. At the same time, a new security routine was normalized, in which police officers were able to search the mobile phones as well as social media accounts of pedestrians. Since then, it has become a potential security check that can be conducted on any individual, at any time.

Earlier analysis of the Cybercrime Law focused on censorship and data retention, and towards the end of 2019, the law was also applied in cases of debauchery. Yet, it was not before spring 2020 and the crackdown on lower-class and lower-middle-class women TikTokers that the focus shifted to the unenforceability of Article 25 of the law, which punishes the violation of the vaguely worded “values and principles of the family.” Between June and November 2020, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) worked closely on three cases filed against internet users for expressing their non-dominant religious views online. By far, Articles 25 and 27 of Law 175 have been applied more assiduously in cases in which political dissent and content concerning religious minorities and sexual diversities appeared online.

Extra regulations for social isolation

Soon after the World Health Organization announced COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, organisations around the world began reporting an increase in gender-based and domestic violence, in what they called a ‘shadow pandemic’. At the same time, another phenomenon started to take shape, that of the ‘citizen-informant’, a term for people who policed other people who were not practicing social distancing. The tendencies for violence and surveillance contained in these two phenomena came together and accentuated each other in a remarkable way in Egypt in April 2020, when TikTok became popular, in what is referred to as the case of women TikTokers in this brief. With the increasing popularity of the TikTok application in Egypt, online bullying multiplied against women and girls, for videotaping their social isolation. By the end of 2020, a 15-second lip sync had become a nightmare. 

Between April and July 2020, several React Youtube videos by men picking on content produced by women on TikTok circulated online. Furthermore, this targeting and incitement campaign was followed by a  wave of arrests in response to another moralistic campaign led by a few lawyers, who voluntarily submitted reports to the prosecutor’s office using evidence they downloaded from the TikTok accounts of those women. 

The smear campaign against women TikTokers highlights a classist perception of and entitlement to lower-class and lower-middle-class women’s bodies. Scrolling through Instagram and TikTok content in Egypt, it becomes evident that it is not the content itself but rather the class identity of the creator that untaps such rage. Content posted by upper-middle-class and upper-class users on Instagram, which is similar to  the content created by women TikTokers that is labelled punishable for violating family values, has not been subject to similar inspection. Multilingual content, brand clothing, and settings of gated communities and resorts in videos uploaded by upper-class women contrast to the counterfeit fashion, broken English, make-up and color choices, and the crammed cardboard boxes in the backdrop of videos created by lower-class users on TikTok. The React Youtube videos ridiculed lower-class women’s content on TikTok, in which they expressed themselves, dressed up, danced, and through which they sometimes made an income too. 

Moreover, this online smear campaign led by Youtube and Facebook users pointed out “empty content” (which was considered by them to be not “purposeful” and “meaningful”) in the videos of the women TikTokers as one of the reasons to enforce punishment over these women. This systematic smear campaign drew on monetized interactions on Youtube, Likee, and TikTok and allowed the authorities to lay the ground for allegations of indecency, immorality, and sex work against women users with multiplying viewership. Interestingly, the React videos published by male Youtubers themselves continued to generate money by just pointing out the ‘empty content’ of women TikTokers. The crackdown on women TikTokers highlights the intersection of class and sexuality online, in the light of the bigger picture, which depicts changing home economics of stay-at-home women who have also become popular Youtubers over the past two years through documenting their daily routines and making money by videotaping housework; such content was less harmfully attacked via memes.

Due to their viral nature on Youtube, reactions to lower-class and lower-middle-class women’s content on TikTok infiltrated Facebook and Twitter and flooded their newsfeeds captioned as ‘indecent’ and loaded with bullying responses to of lower-class women’s demeanor on TikTok. As this cyber-bullying and targeting surged, Facebook users started interacting excessively with the Public Prosecutor’s Facebook page by tagging profiles publishing “indecent clips” and calling for an intervention. Over the next few weeks it became intuitive to tag more names of ‘indecent women’ and drop links to their accounts on Instagram and TikTok. Meanwhile, the moralistic campaign led by lawyers submitted multiple reports to the Public Prosecutor’s office. At some point, it became easy to predict who was next up for an arrest by just following the citizen-informant interactions with the Public Prosecutor’s Facebook page. 

On the other hand, a women-led online campaign solicited signatures in support of the nine targeted women TikTokers, some of whom are still currently detained. While the cases of the ‘TikTok women’ are contextually different, they nevertheless share the intersection of class and women’s presence online. By far, the majority of convicted women TikTokers were fined and sentenced between three to six years in prison. 

On January 12, 2021, news of Cairo Economic Court acquitting Haneen Hossam and Mawada al-Adham on charges of violating ‘family values’ pulsed through the Internet, just before the North Cairo criminal court ordered their detention on charges of human trafficking. The new charges and Haneen and Mawada’s retention in custody highlights the vulnerable social position of women and girls who share Haneen and Mawada’s class status. It all started with a TikTok clip published by Haneen inviting young women and girls over eighteen, who are facing economic hardships because of the coronavirus pandemic, to join Likee application under what she referred to as her “agency.” Haneen’s invitation was frowned upon by public commentators, who decontextualised her Instagram story and manufactured a narrative of how it served to  recruit women for sex work. Before being arrested, Haneen was referred to an internal investigation following a number of public statements made by Cairo University officials, who claimed to be guarding Egyptian identity. On February 2, Haneen was finally released!

On the other hand, on May 22, 2020, the case of Menna Abdel-Aziz caught public attention when she broke down on live stream calling on the state and the people to pursue justice for her rapist and others who physically assaulted her. Menna was turned into a suspect instead of a victim in a matter of days and was charged with inciting immorality and violating ‘Egyptian family values’. At the same time, a group of upper-class girls came forward against a serial rapist, to which the National Council for Women (NCW) responded quickly, encouraging more testimonies to move the case forward and offering legal support. On the other hand, the NCW’s delayed reaction to Menna’s case sparked anger over its reluctance towards the girl’s victimization. Menna was released in September 2020, after spending over 100 days in custody, and the five people who took part in the rape have finally been tried.

Prognosis for 2021 

By far, Cybercrime Law and its application, as we have observed them, signify a general pattern of expansion in public policing of online self-expression, alongside the vagueness of what constitutes ‘Egyptian Family Values’ that continues to fuel public discussions around bodily freedoms and agency. 

Another pattern is how the Office of the Public Prosecutor initiates paternalistic cases and submits motions accordingly. This pattern has also been sustained by the recently established Social Media Unit in the Public Prosecutor’s office, and its attention is not limited to containment of political online mobilization but also includes issues related to morality. Such a pattern raises the question of how manpower is put to use in the middle of a pandemic and also questions about how the Office of Public Prosecutor is charting priorities and allocating resources to fulfill its role.  

Chapter by Nana Abuelsoud, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights