Egypt is in the news again – and for all the wrong reasons. Innocent young girls, enjoying their blossoming youth and exuberance, were recently clamped down on so violently by the State for ‘violating family values’, simply because they danced, sang and encouraged their numerous followers on TikTok – one of their numerous platforms – to do same. This was their ‘sin’, as decreed by the prosecuting judges in a Cairo court, and like child’s play, the effervescent and amiable TikTok girls, Haneen Hossam and Mawada al-Adham, were sentenced to ten years and six years respectively, in a judgement that flew in the face of justice, equity and all tenets of fairness.
My heart is greatly troubled by this development, and the rush at which these girls were arraigned and condemned seemed to have had the seal or imprimatur of Big Brother in the seat of power who, true to form, had surreptitiously monitored the proceedings. Egypt is without doubt an ugly sore on the conscience of humanity when examining her human rights scorecard. When the country’s poor citizens staged their own ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011 – an action meant to cleanse the Augean stables and provide food for their hungry stomachs – little did they know that their collective efforts would be betrayed by the head of the country’s Armed Forces, a relatively unknown General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who manipulated the volatile situation to his advantage by overthrowing the legitimately elected Mohamed Morsi, thus plunging a dagger into the soul of the Egyptian constitution.
Now the citizens, who had agitated for a transparent government then, are the very ones hounded through the nooks and crannies of Egypt and out of the country. Put succinctly, the current Egyptian leader has gained notoriety for silencing dissenting voices, railroading real and imagined enemies to prison, and promoting a culture of fear.
I have written extensively on Egypt’s state of affairs and General al-Sisi’s brinkmanship in my collection of critical essays (Sifting the Grain from the Chaff, available from all online bookstores or on my website, www.martinsagbonlahor.com), and so I won’t spend any more time or ink on him here. I must, however, with renewed vigour, call for the immediate release of these young girls, whose freedom of expression has been violently curtailed.
To take this further, the orchestrated trial of the TikTok girls was simply to sound a note of warning to their teeming social media followers, and to remind them that the Egyptian State does not tolerate free speech – especially when it comes from women, who, by Egyptian so-called ‘values’, are meant to be seen and not heard. Women are always made the scapegoat in a country where sexual harassment is rife, and gang rape a far too frequent occurrence, not to mention the frightening rate of female genital mutilation (FGM). The dicta of culture, religion, traditions and customs are also there. These combine to debase womanhood, making women mere appendages to men. No wonder Egypt is regarded as the worst country to be a woman in the entire Arab world. And to think, too, that this country was the first to bring civilisation to the entire world is complete anathema to me!
Again, when did it become a crime for teenage girls to make some cash as influencers posting videos on social media platforms, when young Egyptian boys are doing the same and going scot-free? And, as if this isn’t enough, the law court has added another charge to the present one: that of human trafficking – the final nail in the coffin, and one in which these teenage girls may not be able to extricate or exonerate themselves.
The human trafficking ‘crime’ these girls are now accused of is, to me, a cruel joke. No matter how it is construed by the Egyptian courts, it cannot pass the test of civilised standards, as three vital elements must be established for this crime to gel, as enshrined in Article 3(a) of the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, 2000 – or as we have it in jurisprudence: ‘The Palermo Protocol’, of which Egypt is a signatory. The accused must be in the action of recruitment, transfer or receipt of persons by means of threat or use of force, coercion, abduction or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim for the purpose of exploitation, forced labour, slavery and the removal of organs.
The emphasised words above are the three elements – and I make bold to say that the Egyptian judges cannot prove these girls are really guilty of this offence, except they – the judges – mangle the Protocol or carve out their own ‘home-grown’ legislation to have these girls guillotined. In truth, this is a sheer Potemkin façade: a decision-before-trial ‘judicial process’, aimed at obtaining a predetermined verdict. I mean, why punish these innocent girls, who simply want to enjoy themselves like all youngsters?
And don’t be surprised if General al-Sisi goes for the jugular in defiance of pleas from human rights organisations and other world bodies. To me, these girls should be freed with no strings attached, and compensated financially for having gone through excruciating physical and mental torture for no just or justifiable reason, not to mention they were their poor families’ mainstays and breadwinners.
Now is the time for General Fattah al-Sisi to show some goodwill and do what is right, else he will be buried under the huge tide of public opinion on this matter.
Martins Agbonlahor is a criminologist, journalist and author based in Manchester. His recent novel, Another Poor Cow – the Dangers of Tradition in Rural Nigeria, is available on Amazon and all online bookstores.
Written by: Martins Agbonlahor