CAIRO • Armed with vaguely worded laws, Egypt’s guardians of conservative morals have long focused on belly dancers and pop stars in their efforts to police women’s behaviour. Now they have hit upon a new target – young women who have become famous on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram.
In the latest episode of a long-running culture war, an Egyptian court on Monday convicted two female social media stars on charges of “violating family values” and sentenced each of them to two years in prison.
The court also found three men guilty on charges of helping post the women’s videos and received the same sentence, lawyers said.
The convictions were the first verdicts from a series of at least nine arrests since April of young Egyptian women who are prominent on TikTok, a wildly popular app.
Social media is a highly contested and often perilous space in Egypt, a country where the government exerts tight control over traditional media such as newspapers and television, and has used courts to patrol digital platforms beyond its reach.
Numerous Egyptians have been jailed for posts on Twitter and Facebook deemed critical of the government, or of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. At least 500 news websites have been blocked.
In some countries, TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese company, has come under intense scrutiny over concerns that the Chinese government could use it to spy on users. US President Donald Trump is considering steps to ban the app.
But in Egypt, the focus is largely on the app’s potential effect on the country’s moral probity.
Several women, mostly in their 20s, have become famous through their use of TikTok, in some cases earning thousands of dollars by monetising their large followings. Some wear headscarves, a sign that they come from conservative families.
The backlash has come from Egypt’s Parliament as well as the courts, with some lawmakers demanding that the government suspend TikTok, accusing it of promoting nudity and immorality.
Most of the women facing prosecution for their TikTok posts were put in jail without bail. Human rights activists launched a digital campaign last week to demand their release.
The two women convicted on Monday gained millions of followers for lighthearted videos they posted to TikTok and other platforms that show them singing, dancing and clowning about. The clips are tame by social media standards and nothing that would raise the eyebrow of a broadcast censor in the West.
The two women convicted on Monday – Haneen Hossam, 20, and Mawada el-Adham, 22 – gained millions of followers for lighthearted videos they posted to TikTok and other platforms that show them singing, dancing and clowning about. The clips are tame by social media standards and nothing that would raise the eyebrow of a broadcast censor in the West.
The women wept as a judge at the Cairo Economic Court handed down the sentences, one of their lawyers said. They were also fined nearly US$19,000 (S$26,200) each.
Hossam, a second-year archaeology student at Cairo University, was arrested in April for a short Instagram video clip that prosecutors called “indecent”. In the video, she encouraged women to post videos of themselves to the app Likee, which pays users based on the number of views they receive.
Egyptian prosecutors accused Hossam, who usually wears a headscarf in her videos, of inviting young women to sell sex online. Her lawyer Ahmed Abdelnaby denied the charge. “Nothing she said in that video violated the law. The video is proof of her innocence, not the opposite,” he said.
The second social media star, Adham, a former beauty pageant contestant with 3.2 million followers on TikTok, was on the run for days before her arrest in May, moving between houses in the Cairo suburbs and Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. During the trial, prosecutors slammed videos that she posted as “disgraceful and insulting”, her lawyer said.
In one of Adham’s last videos, before police tracked her down using her phone signal and Internet use, she posed smiling in a velour one-piece jumpsuit with her hair dyed blue.