Egypt deepens crackdown via arresting social media influencers, report

Internet personalities in Egypt are the target of a government campaign based on trumped up charges that rights activists say violate free speech.

Egyptians who post viral content, even if it appears apolitical, are increasingly being charged with terrorism

Last month, Mohamed Hossam El-Din, an Egyptian content creator, posted a satirical video of himself that received 7.5 million views on Facebook, according to Wall Street Journal.

“Now, he, along with four other Egyptian actors in the video, has been arrested on terrorism charges, despite the fact that the video contained no overtly political message.”

The Egyptian government has expanded its crackdown on free expression to target YouTubers and social media influencers, detaining and prosecuting several in recent weeks.

In the last few years, numerous bloggers and activists in Egypt have been arrested for posts on social media while others languish in arbitrary detention for online activities.

Egyptian authorities are arresting social-media influencers whose content goes viral, even if that content is apolitical, as part of a crackdown on free speech by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.

As the country faces a mounting economic crisis and pressure on the government grows, human-rights activists say Mr. Sisi is seeking to cow Egyptians who have large social-media followings into toeing the government’s line.

Ordinary Egyptians, as well as some officials, have begun to question Mr. Sisi’s handling of an economic crisis that has exacerbated already high inflation by impeding imports in order to hoard dwindling foreign-currency reserves. Rising prices have in turn left many Egyptians struggling to afford staples like bread and meat.

“There’s a very palpable anger with people blaming Sisi for mismanagement of the economy for the first time in nine years,” said Hossam Bahgat, an activist from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a rights group based in Cairo. “Authorities are clearly getting more nervous and keen to rein in conduct.”

Under Sisi, Egypt has detained tens of thousands of people for political reasons, according to human-rights groups. Thousands of Egyptians were rounded up in 2019, when the government quashed mass street protests calling for Mr. Sisi to step down.

The digital space has been one of the last relatively free areas for expression since then, but now appears to be closing.

In a satirical video entitled “The Visit,” Mr. Hossam, who produces online videos and has over 1.6 million followers on Facebook, wears a yellow jumpsuit and, from a fake jail cell, makes elusive references to getting out and seeking retribution against an opponent.

Lawyers representing Mr. Hossam and the other actors said the group was simply trying to gain followers and wasn’t seeking to make a political statement. Still, authorities charged the actors with joining a terrorist group, funding terrorism, publishing false news and using social-media accounts to spread false content, they said.

Other videos by Mr. Hossam feature skits with actors playing soccer stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, as well as male students joking during a fake exam.

Egypt’s economic crisis has exacerbated already high inflation. A night market in Alexandria, Egypt.

The arrest of Mr. Hossam follows similar incidents where authorities have targeted Egyptians posting on sites such as TikTok and Likee. Authorities will soon hear the appeals of Nancy Ayman Sobhy and Mawaddah Fathi Rashad, two young women who posted videos of themselves dancing on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube.

Ms. Sobhy, who went by the moniker “Moka Hegazi” on social media, was sentenced to one year in prison for prostitution and two years for inviting debauchery. Ms. Rashad, who had three million followers on TikTok and went by “Mawaddah Al Adham,” was sentenced to six years in prison for human trafficking.

Both pleaded not guilty, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a Cairo-based rights group that represented the women in court.

Last March, authorities arrested three men for a TikTok video in which they played a traditional Egyptian love song but altered its lyrics to refer to the soaring prices of oil and meat.

The men were charged with joining a terrorist group and spreading false news, said Islam Salama, a lawyer for the group. Authorities released the men after a few weeks, but the charges—which the men deny—are pending, Mr. Salama said.

Sisi has a keen sense of the power of social media, rights activist Mr. Bahgat said. Mr. Sisi was the director of military intelligence in 2011, when calls for the overthrow of then-President Hosni Mubarak spread, including over Facebook and Twitter.

Since assuming the presidency in 2014, Mr. Sisi has repeatedly warned against the dangers of the internet and what he described as “warfare” using media and communication to create instability in society, including among youths.

Egyptian authorities have closely monitored social media for political dissent and began arresting people for online posts starting about a decade ago. In the lead-up to an international climate summit hosted by Egypt last fall, officials rounded up hundreds of people they suspected of being connected to calls on social media for nationwide protests.

Egypt maintains an internet firewall that blocks hundreds of websites, including most independent Egyptian news outlets. Human-rights activists say that authorities are unlikely to block widely used sites like Facebook, where a significant amount of internet commerce takes place and on which authorities also depend heavily for their own propaganda and surveillance.

Laws in recent years have allowed authorities to pursue people engaged in a broader range of content. Officials have used 2018 anticybercrime legislation to target those deemed to be violating Egyptian family values or offending Islam. Young women and LGBT people have received especially heavy sentences, according to activists.

Authorities are also increasingly using a 2015 antiterrorism law that defines terrorism as anything deemed as going against the national interest and public safety to pursue expression that isn’t overtly political, rights lawyers and activists say.

Video platforms like TikTok have become a way for many young, impoverished Egyptians to make a living with just a mobile-phone camera and an internet connection. The men who sang about rising prices were friends from the Egyptian countryside hoping to make money from TikTok advertisements, according to Mr. Salama, the group’s lawyer.

“They called themselves the comics of the poor. They were lucky prosecutors concluded they were naive,” he said.