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When Egypt prosecutes influencers for “damaging morals”

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In Egypt, tiktok girls are in the crosshairs of the authorities, who use a 2018 law on cybercrime to be able to sanction those whose publications are deemed to “undermine public morals” or “family values”. A famous influencer, arrested on April 3 for “debauchery”, has just added her name to the already long list of women prosecuted for their activities on social networks.

Salma Elshimy had just returned to Egypt when police arrested her on Monday, April 3, accusing her of “debauchery” and “violation of family values” for her posts on social networks. The Egyptian influencer with 3.3 million subscribers on TikTok had applied for residence in Dubai where she intended to move.

It was a photographer working with the model in the United Arab Emirates who informed the Egyptian media mada of the arrest of the young woman. A prosecutor ordered the detention of the fashion influencer for four days for “spreading immorality” and publishing videos and photographs “contrary to morals and social values”, according to the Qatari media Middle East Monitor.

For mee Hany Sameh, member of the freedoms committee of the Lawyers’ Union, “the accusations against Salma Elshimy are vague”. According to him, these charges fall under “remnants of a regressive and intransigent masculine chauvinism towards women”. This lawyer, questioned by Mada the day after the arrest, worked on similar cases in Egypt.

Researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division of the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amr Magdi was also indignant at this arrest, which is not the first targeting an Egyptian influencer. “Authorities have arrested another influential woman for ‘debauchery’ simply for posting pictures we see in everyday life and on TV. Under [Abdel Fattah] al-Sissi, arrests of women accused of ‘morality’ have exploded,” he tweeted.

Wearing “inappropriate pharaonic clothing”

Salma Elshimy this is not his first run-in with Egyptian justice. In December 2020, she spent a month in prison, before being released on bail, for taking part in a photo session outside the necropolis of Saqqara.

On the pictures posted on Facebook, the influencer had posed in ancient Egyptian attire in front of the pyramid of Djoser. Internet users, considering that she wore “suggestive” clothes, had denounced her to the authorities, while local media had accused her of “exploiting the cultural value of antiquities by wearing inappropriate pharaonic clothes”.

Since the adoption of a cybercrime law in 2018, Egyptian authorities have been targeting influential women on social networks for various morality charges, alert several human rights groups.

Discrimination against women

One of the flaps of ce text legislative attacks specifically online content deemed to “harm public morals” or “family values”. HRW accuses this law of violating the right to freedom of expression and of being used as a tool to attack women in particular. “Monitoring women’s peaceful conduct online looks like a new effort to police women’s use of public spaces,” points out Rothna Begum, women’s rights specialist the NGO Human Rights Watch, in a 2020 report published by the NGO.

Hany Sameh denounces an ambiguous law as to the definition of the standards to be respected. “Are these the values ​​of Egypt in the 1960s, the values ​​of upper-class families and residents of seaside resorts, or the values ​​of the Salafists?”, questions the lawyer, pointing out that the dress of Salma Elshimy is no different from that worn by other artists on television and in the media.

A dozen arrests of influencers in two years

In all, more than a dozen influencers were arrested between 2020 and 2022, like two tiktokers – Haneen Hossam, 24, and Mawada al-Adham, 22, arrested for the first time in 2020 and imprisoned for their publications deemed contrary to “good morals”.

Screen capture from videos of Egyptian influencers Haneen Hossam and Mowada al-Adham (left to right) in 2020.
Screen capture from videos of Egyptian influencers Haneen Hossam and Mowada al-Adham (left to right) in 2020. © AFP

Haneen Hossam was notably accused of pimping for having explained to her approximately 1.3 million subscribers at the time that young girls could earn money by working on social networks. But after reviewing the videos on which Haneen Hossam’s conviction was based, Amnesty International had estimated in 2022 that these young women had been sanctioned because of the way they dance, speak, dress and try to “influence” the public on the Internet.

In 2020 in Egypt, Amnesty International denounced another case: “A social media influencer posted a live video, appearing with her face covered in bruises, pleading with the state to prosecute the men she accused of ‘having raped her. She was arrested, her alleged attackers also, and their statements served as the basis for indicting her’of incitement to debauchery’ and of ‘violation of the principles and values ​​of the family'”.

“These serial arrests of women send a chilling signal about the state of women’s rights in Egypt,” HRW said. “Instead of tackling domestic violence, sexual harassment and generalized violence, Egyptian authorities seem intent on reinforcing societal discrimination by persecuting women and girls for how they look online or what they say. “

If found guilty, Salma Elshimy risks up to five years in prison and a fine of €8,000 for “undermining public morals”, and six months in prison and a fine of up to €3,000 for “undermining the principles and family values ​​of Egyptian society”.

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