By Kelly Alvarado and Claudia Motley
The internet has become an essential part of our lives, and various platforms allow millions of people around the world to express themselves. So what happens when this freedom becomes prosecutable by government law?
Since April, ten young Egyptian influencers were prosecuted for posting content on TikTok. These women alluded the government’s attention because of their spread of “immoral” and “indecent” videos.
“The imprisonment of some opposition figures including comics, writers and youtubers who criticize the regime are selective acts that do not actually defend society’s morals or national security,” Jihan Zakarriya, author of ‘Vulnerability, resistance and sexuality in revolutionary Egypt,’ said. “Rather, they denounce the credibility of the government.”
Egypt strictly monitors online social media activity to analyze posts that go against traditional Egyptian values, and many websites have been blocked for state security. Amnesty International reported that in 2018, Egyptian authorities arrested over 113 individuals on charges such as: “satire, tweeting, supporting football clubs, denouncing sexual harassment, editing movies, giving or conducting interviews,” All under the guise of “state security.”
Since the President of Egypt, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, came to power in 2014, hundreds of journalists, activists, and lawyers have been arrested for content they’ve published online. According to the Human Rights Organization, Egyptian authorities have blocked 600 domains since May 2017.
“In Egypt, there is a systematic focus on national security issues that sends a clear message that opposition and dissent will bring chaos and violence,” Zakarriya said. “Egyptian government’s prosecution of female Tiktok influencers is an overt expression of the ongoing discrimination and revenge against women,” she said.
Internet censorship is a recurring theme in the Middle East, as well as other countries. The internet, though prided for its ability to give voice to the global public, is now often used by government authorities in countries like China and Saudi Arabia as a means of influencing foreign politics.
In China, Twitter users faced prosecution as a result of the nation’s high level of online surveillance. Additionally, Turkey has blocked social media apps like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Saudi Arabia in following suit, has monitored social media posts and has been detaining progressive activists for going against the regime. In the latest edition of Freedom on the Net, an annual report published by the independent research organization Freedom House, over half of the 65 countries assessed had declining internet freedoms.
Similar to Saudi Arabia, women’s rights activists in Egypt are being detained by security forces for campaigning for the prosecution of several accused rapists. Egyptian women have been raising their voices in recent weeks, detailing on social media the sexual assaults they say they have endured. A 2013 U.N. report on women showed 99.3 percent of women and girls are subjected to sexual harassment in Egypt.
“Sexual assault/harassment is prevalent in Egypt,” Zakarriya said. “Egyptian women go through different forms of public sexual violence and harassment. women are harassed in streets, shops, public transportation, schools, workplaces. Women do not report sexual harassment because the judicial and legal systems are biased,” she said.
Social media has played an important role in women’s rights movements in the past, notably in 2018 during the #MeToo movement. The phenomenon–which originated in the United States–expanded across the globe, gaining traction in dozens of other countries. According to a study at the Qatar Computing Research Institute, social media has the capacity to offer better representation for women in regions with large gender inequalities.
The Egyptian Council of Representatives has approved a draft law that would protect victims of sexual violence and encourages the reporting of sexual crimes. Sexual assaults have long gone unpunished in Egypt and a new draft law has the potential for change.
“I think the new draft law regarding sexual harassment victims in Egypt is a good step. Zakarriya, said. “It is a direct declaration of state responsibility and accountability for protecting women,” she said.