When Mawada Eladhm began posting videos on TikTok, she had no idea that being an online influencer in Egypt was so perilous. Despite having three million followers, she became the target of frequent derogatory comments on the popular video-sharing platform. In April, she appeared to acknowledge the situation, posting a clip showing her with dyed blue hair and lip-synching to a melancholic song from an old Egyptian TV series. The lyrics seemed to convey how she felt about her attackers: “This is a time when people have monsters deep inside their hearts.”

The next month, the nation’s Ministry of Interior issued a warrant for the 22-year-old’s arrest, accusing her of publishing videos and photographs that violated family values. Eladhm, who is the daughter of a retired policeman, fled her home in Cairo, but officers eventually found her in a suburb of the city by tracking her cellphone. She was sentenced in late July to two years in prison and fined nearly $19,000. 

Even Eladhm’s lawyer believes her to be guilty. “The police only arrested girls that misused apps,” Ahmed al-Bokheir told me during a telephone interview. “For example, girls are now using TikTok for online prostitution. These are the kind of girls that are being arrested.” 

Most of Eladhm’s videos feature her mouthing the words to pop songs or dancing to Arabic electronic music in fashionable dresses and crop tops. That wouldn’t be a crime in most countries, but in conservative Egypt she has become one of at least nine female TikTok users prosecuted in recent months on charges related to inciting debauchery and prostitution. 

The girls are all from middle or working-class backgrounds, and some monetized their followings to earn thousands of dollars. While their content did not violate the app’s community standards, Egyptian authorities have enforced their own red lines, without clearly demarcating them. 

Like Eladhm, the other women have been charged with “violating family values” – a vaguely defined clause from a controversial cybercrime bill that was passed in August 2018. Reporters Without Borders warned that the bill would legalize President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s broader war against online dissent, which has resulted in the blocking of at least 500 news websites and the jailing of numerous Egyptians for posts on Twitter and Facebook. 

Culture wars

Since toppling the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi — Egypt’s only democratically elected leader — in July 2013, Sisi’s regime has cracked down on individuals who challenge the nation’s deeply entrenched social norms. In recent years, women have been jailed for speaking out against sexual harassment online, and the LGBTQ community has been targeted with raids on public gatherings, arrests and the torture of detainees. 

Now, the government is tightening its control of social media. Just last month, a Cairo administrative court said that it will decide on September 20 whether to block YouTube, the second-most-used social media platform in Egypt. The reason for these deliberations have not been disclosed to the public. In June, the nation’s Supreme Administrative Court ordered authorities to block the site for one month over its refusal to remove a video it deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammad. 

However, even that decision failed to generate the same level of attention as the TikTok trials, which have become a key battleground in a wider culture war. In addition to the courts, Egypt’s parliament has also accused TikTok of spreading immorality with some lawmakers demanding that the government suspend the app.

TikTok, which is owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance, has come under intense scrutiny in a number of countries over concerns that the Chinese government could use it to spy on users. On August 6, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning any U.S. transactions with ByteDance. 

In Egypt, controversy flared up around social media platforms in April, when influencer Hanin Hossam uploaded a video on Instagram from her Cairo bedroom. In the clip, Hossam, 20, wore a red headscarf, matching lipstick and a grey sweater. With her phone held casually in front of her, she told her 746,000 followers that she was recruiting young women to work as influencers for a new video app named Likee, a rival to TikTok. 

The clip circulated online for three weeks before it was seen by Nashaat al-Dihy, an anchor for the popular satellite channel TeN TV. During his broadcast on April 19, Dihy played snippets of the footage before accusing Hossam of encouraging prostitution. Two nights later, intelligence officers showed up at Hossam’s home and arrested her in front of her family. She too was found guilty of violating family values and sentenced in late July to two years in prison and a fine of nearly $19,000. 

“May God punish Dihy,” said a close relative, who asked that her name not be published, for fear of reprisals from authorities. “He manipulated her video to make it look like she promoted immoral behavior.” 

Neither the Ministry of Interior nor police authorities responded to requests for comment for this story. Emails sent to TikTok and Likee also received no reply.

Hossam’s lawyer, Mahmoud Heidar, places the bulk of the blame on celebrities like Dihy for encouraging the state to pursue such cases. He added that Egypt’s countrywide coronavirus lockdown, which came into effect in mid-March and was lifted in late June, prompted people to spend much more time on social media than they had previously.

According to Heidar, many newcomers followed men who had criticized and bullied Hossam online for singing along to Egyptian pop songs and posing in fashionable outfits while wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf. 

One, who goes by the name of Naser Hekaia, told his 447,000 YouTube subscribers that “Hossam disrespects the veil she wears.” 

During a telephone conversation about the verdict against his client, Heidar complained that “our society convicted Hossam before the court did.” 

Double Standard 

The current clampdown on TikTok and other social media platforms highlights the Egyptian government’s inconsistent attitude towards digital spaces. Last month, dozens of women used Instagram to post detailed accounts of sexual assaults allegedly carried out by a 21-year-old Cairo student. Within days, police had arrested a man named Ahmed Bassam Zaki and launched an investigation into the allegations. This swift action prompted a brief wave of optimism that the authorities were finally ready to take such cases seriously. 

However, these hopes stand in sharp contrast to the arrest of the young women on TikTok. The most troubling case of all, though, has been the state’s reaction to a video posted on TikTok in May by 17-year-old Menna Abdel Aziz from Cairo. In it, she appeared with a swollen face and accused Mazen Ibrahim, 25, and three female accomplices of assault and rape. 

“If the government is watching this video, then get me justice,” she said. 

Police later confirmed that one of the alleged accomplices filmed and uploaded footage of the attack online. The most widely shared video, viewed tens of thousands of times on YouTube and TikTok, shows Aziz being slapped across the face while attempting to put on her trousers. But, rather than support Aziz, police arrested her and the alleged attackers on charges of inciting debauchery.  

Women’s rights advocates succeeded in lobbying for Aziz to be transferred from prison to a rehabilitation center, following a police investigation that confirmed her assault and rape. However, the charges against her remain. 

A number of activists have come together to launch campaigns to raise awareness about the ordeal facing women accused of promoting immorality on social media. 

“The government has created a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women,” said Mozen Hassan, founder of the non-profit women’s rights group Nazra for Feminist Studies. In 2016, Hassan and her NGO were charged with receiving foreign funds for the purpose of “harming national security.” Her assets were frozen and she was banned from traveling. 

Hassan now believes that Sisi’s regime is targeting women online because the internet has become the last public space available to them. “The bad women are activists, human rights defenders and the TikTok girls,” she said. 

Mohammad Hamarsha contributed additional reporting.