Egypt struggles with women’s freedoms online as #MeToo re-emerges

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Cairo (AFP)

Social media has become a dangerous new battleground for women’s rights in Egypt after young TikTok influencers were jailed while a resurgent #MeToo movement denounced male sexual violence.

Last Monday, a court sentenced five influential social media women, Haneen Hossam, Mowada al-Adham and three others, to two years in prison each for violating public morals for content posted on the TikTok video-sharing app. .

The international digital rights group Access Now described them as “all women, all young people, all exercising their right to freedom of expression online.”

Just two days later, a court sentenced another young social media influencer, Manar Samy, to three years in prison for videos from TikTok, judging clips in which she dances and lip-syncs to popular songs like ” inciting debauchery ”.

Many people in this deeply conservative country have applauded the arrests, as traditional social values ​​collide with online content considered racy and sexually suggestive.

“The Egyptian government is leading a campaign to arrest and prosecute influential women on … TikTok for violating ‘Egyptian family values’ and ‘inciting debauchery and immorality,'” Access Now said in a statement.

Egyptian authorities “want to control not only what citizens say, but also how they dress, speak and behave online,” said Marwa Fatafta, the group’s policy officer for the Middle East and Africa North.

– ‘Stronghold sur Internet’ –

Egypt has, in recent years, imposed strict controls on the internet as it follows a narrow line between balancing Islamic law that shapes its governance and adapting to a rapidly changing society with a penchant for the social media content.

Strict laws were approved in 2018 allowing authorities to block websites deemed a threat to national security and monitor personal social media accounts with more than 5,000 subscribers.

“In the past, the Egyptian regime has tightened its stronghold on the Internet … Now online repression also extends to non-political activities,” Fatafta said.

The six women imprisoned together have millions of followers.

Hossam was arrested after posting a clip saying girls could make money working with her, a post which was interpreted as a call for prostitution, while Adham posted satirical videos on TikTok and Instagram .

As well as being a virtual battleground of competing interpretations of morality, social media has also allowed young Egyptian women to speak out about sexual assault, sometimes with negative consequences.

In May, a shocking video emerged in which a young woman was sobbing with her face beaten and bruised.

Menna Abdel-Aziz, 17, posted a video on Instagram in which she said she was raped by a group of young men.

The authorities’ response was swift: the six suspected assailants were arrested – as was Abdel-Aziz. All were accused of “promoting debauchery”.

“She has committed crimes, she admitted some of them,” the attorney general said in a statement. “She deserves to be punished. ”

– ‘More soon’ –

Since the Abdel-Aziz case surfaced, a revived #MeToo movement among Egyptian women, mostly from wealthy backgrounds, has sprung into action.

A gang rape allegation in late July stemming from a prominent social media account was a trigger.

Another was young women who published testimonies of sexual misconduct which led to the arrest earlier this month of Ahmed Bassam Zaki, 22, a former student at some of Egypt’s most elite schools and universities.

But the movement faces an uphill battle.

Human rights groups say the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has restricted freedoms since taking office in 2014.

Comedians, academics, bloggers, journalists, political dissidents, lawyers and activists are among those who have been jailed in recent years, and a music video director has died in custody.

Imprisoning social media influencers, the latest target group, “has nothing to do with protecting social values. It’s about police and internet control, ”Access Now Fatafta said.

“With the massive increase in the number of content creators and influencers on TikTok in Egypt, there is a high risk that further lawsuits against this community are yet to come,” the organization added.

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