Looking at Haneen Hossam’s TikTok account, one might wonder why her content landed the Egyptian social media user in jail. In one post, she explains for her followers the Greek mythological story of Venus and Adonis, which is also a Shakespeare poem.
They are just two of the nine women arrested in Egypt this past year for what they posted on TikTok. Mostly, their videos are full of dancing to Arabic songs, usually a genre of electro-pop, Egyptian sha’abi folk music called mahraganat, or festival tunes. The clips feature a typically TikTok style — with feet planted, hands gesticulating and eyebrows emoting.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has put TikTok and its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, in its sights with another escalation against Beijing. The US Commerce Department announced Friday that TikTok, and another Chinese-owned app, WeChat, would be blocked from US app stores.
In Egypt, the arrests are about dictating morality rather than any kind of geopolitical struggle or international tech rivalry. But what exactly the government finds legally objectionable about these women’s online content is ambiguous.
“They themselves would have never imagined that they would go to jail and be sentenced for what they were doing, because what they're doing is basically what everyone else does on social media.”
“They themselves would have never imagined that they would go to jail and be sentenced for what they were doing because what they're doing is basically what everyone else does on social media,” said Salma El Hosseiny of the International Service for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization based in Geneva. “Singing and dancing as if you would at an Egyptian wedding, for example.”
Hosseiny said that these women were likely targeted because they’re from middle- or working-class backgrounds and dance to a style of music shunned by the bourgeoisie for scandalous lyrics that touch on taboo topics.
“You have social media influencers who come from elite backgrounds, or upper-middle class, or rich classes in Egypt, who would post the same type of content. These women are working-class women,” she added. “They have stepped out of what is permitted for them.”
They were charged under a cybercrime law passed in 2018, as well as existing laws in the Egyptian Penal Code that have been employed against women in the past.
Yasmin Omar, a researcher at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, said the cybercrime law is vague when it comes to defining what’s legal and what isn’t.
“It was written using very broad terms that could be very widely interpreted and criminalizing a lot of acts that are originally considered as personal freedom,” she said. “Looking at it, you would see that anything you might post on social media, anything that you may use [on] the internet could be criminalized under this very wide umbrella.”
Egypt’s cybercrime law is part of a larger effort by the government to increase surveillance of online activities. As TikTok became much more popular during the pandemic, prosecutors started looking there too, Omar said.
“When I write anything on my social media accounts, I know that it could be seen by an official whose job it is to watch the internet and media platforms,” said Omar, who added that that surveillance often leads to widespread repression.
“The state is simply arresting whoever says anything that criticizes its policy, its laws, its practices ... even if it's just joking. It's not even allowed.”
The arrests of TikTokers shows that this law isn’t just about monitoring and controlling political dissent, but is used to police conservative social norms.
Menna Abdel Aziz, 17, made a live video on Facebook. Her face was bruised and she told viewers that she had been raped and was asking for help.
The police asked her to come in, and when she did, Omar said, they looked at her TikTok account and decided she was inciting debauchery and harming family values in Egypt — essentially blaming the victim for what had occurred.
This past summer, there were a number of particularly shocking allegations involving rape and sexual assault in Egypt. First, dozens of women accused a young man at the American University in Cairo (AUC) of sexual violence ranging from blackmail to rape. And in another case, a group of well-connected men were accused of gang-raping a young woman in Cairo’s Fairmont Hotel in 2014 and circulating a video of the act.
The cases garnered a lot of attention within Egypt. Many Egyptian women were shocked by the horrible details of the cases but not surprised about the allegations or that the details had been kept under wraps for so long.
“In Egypt, sexual violence and violence against women is systematic,” Hosseiny said. “It's part of the daily life of women to be sexually harassed.”
A UN Women report in 2014 said that 99.3% of Egyptian women reported being victims of sexual harassment. Yet, women are often culturally discouraged from reporting sexual harassment in the traditional society.
“They are investing state resources to go after women who are singing and dancing on social media, and trying to control their bodies, and thinking that this is what's going to make society better and a safer place,” Hosseiny said, “by locking up women, rather than by changing and investing in making Egypt a safe place for women and girls.”
When prosecutors started investigating the accused in that high-profile Fairmont case, it looked like real progress and a victory for online campaigning by women. The state-run National Council for Women even encouraged the victim and witnesses to come forward, promising the women protection. But that pledge by the state did not materialize.
“Somehow, the prosecution decided to charge the witnesses,” said Omar, the researcher. “Witnesses who made themselves available, made their information about their lives, about what they know about the case — all this information was used against them.”
“Witnesses who made themselves available, made their information about their lives, about what they know about the case — all this information was used against them.”
Once again, Egyptian authorities looked at the women’s social media accounts, and then investigated the women for promoting homosexuality, drug use, debauchery and publication of false news. One of the witnesses arrested is an American citizen.
When pro-state media outlets weighed in on the TikTok cases, they also had a message about blame, Hosseiny said. The coverage used sensational headlines and showed photos of the women framed in a sexual way. This contrasted with the depictions in rape cases in which the accused men’s photos were blurred and only their initials printed.
Social media has played an important role in Egyptian politics during the last decade. In 2011, crowds toppled the regime of military dictator Hosni Mubarak. That uprising was in part organized online with Twitter and Facebook. In 2018, the former army general, and current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, said he would maintain stability in Egypt.
“Beware! What happened seven years ago is never going to happen again in Egypt,” he swore to a large auditorium full of officials.
Samer Shehata, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, said Egypt’s military-backed regime is wary of the implications of anything posted online, even if it's just dancing.
“I think there has been a heightened paranoia as a result of hysteria ... about the possible political consequences of social media,” he said. “I think that they certainly have those kinds of concerns in the back of their minds as well.”
Of the nine women charged with TikTok crimes, four have been convicted and three have appeals set for October.
Menna Abdel Aziz, the young woman who called for help online, was just released from detainment Wednesday and is being dismissed with no charges.