An Egyptian court sentenced five female social media influencers to two years each in prison on Monday after finding them guilty of promoting immorality and human trafficking by encouraging women to make money building social media followings.
The women, who were also fined 300 000 Egyptian pounds ($19 000), were accused of running online accounts that violated the values and principles of Egypt, a conservative Muslim nation.
Haneen Hossam, 20, a Cairo University student, was charged over encouraging young women to meet men through a video app and build friendships with them, receiving a fee according to the number of followers watching these chats.
Mawada al-Adham, a TikTok and Instagram influencer with at least 2 million followers, was accused of publishing indecent photos and videos on social media.
The three other women were charged with helping Hossam and Al-Adham manage their social media accounts, according to the public prosecution.
Al-Adham’s lawyer Ahmed el-Bahkeri confirmed the sentences and said they would appeal the verdict.
Several women in Egypt have previously been accused of “inciting debauchery” by challenging the country’s conservative social norms, but this battle has moved online as the use of social media by young Egyptians surges.
Cairo’s Misdemeanours Economic Court last month jailed high-profile Egyptian belly-dancer Sama El-Masry for three years for inciting debauchery and immorality as part of a crackdown on social media.
Hossam, who has about one million followers on TikTok and Instagram, was arrested in April after publishing a video clip described by the public prosecution as “indecent”.
In a now-expired video on Instagram she explained how women could work with her to earn up to $3 000 by broadcasting videos in exchange for money using Singapore-based video creation platform Likee owned by China’s Joyy Inc.
Her message was interpreted by the authorities as a promotion for young women to sell sex online, with the public prosecutor saying her actions took advantage of the poor financial state of young women and minors.
A court released her on bail in June but she was re-arrested after the prosecution found new evidence.
Al-Adham was arrested in May over videos posted on TikTok and Instagram.
Human rights activists and social media users launched a digital campaign this month demanding Egyptian authorities release the women, calling the arrests a “violation of freedom of opinion and expression”.
Meanwhile Egyptian parliamentarians demanded the government suspend the video sharing TikTok app in Egypt, saying it promoted nudity and immorality.
Nehad Abu El Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women Rights, said she had reservations over the phrase “violating family values and principles” but she viewed human trafficking and exploiting young girls for money as a “horrible crime”.
“We have to differentiate between freedom of expression and using minors to generate money,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“In this way, it is called human trafficking and prostitution which are banned by the Egyptian law.”
Under Egypt’s cyber crime law issued in 2018, anyone creating and running an account on the internet to commit a crime faces at least two years in jail and a fine of up to 300 000 Egyptian pounds.