Last April, the Public Prosecution began a morality campaign to police women’s use of social media. It began with the arrest of TikTok user Haneen Hossam and then witnessed the arrests of eight more women continuing until June, in the name of protecting the vague and ambiguous concept of Egyptian family values. During the campaign, the Public Prosecution issued one statement after another via its Communication, Guidance, and Social Media Department. They stated the grounds for arresting the women, the circumstances of the investigations, and the latest legal developments in these cases. However, what attracted attention and analysis was the statements’ paternal and religious language, which this article will review.
The Emergence of the Public Prosecution in Public Debate
Under Article 189 of the Constitution, the Public Prosecution is part of the judiciary and responsible for investigating and initiating criminal proceedings. According to the principles of judicial organization, in this role the Public Prosecution acts on behalf of society and represents its interests and public interests in criminal proceedings.
The Public Prosecution had always performed this role without its work attracting public debate except in cases considered public issues. Its statements, which it issued when necessary, were not at the forefront of the public discourse directed at citizens, even during and after the 25 January 2011 revolution, when statements by both the Ministry of Interior and the spokesperson of the Armed Forces did occupy that position.
However, since Hamada al-Sawy became prosecutor-general on 12 September 2019, the Public Prosecution has devoted much attention to citizen engagement via social media platforms. Its statements ceased merely disseminating its decisions and began including clarifications and responses to rumors or issues holding the Egyptian public’s attention.
The first such statement explained the details of the 26 September 2019 arrest and investigation of approximately 1,000 people who had protested against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi six days earlier. The role of social media pages in calling for these protests troubled the state institutions and alerted them to the impact that the open spaces provided by social media could have despite the closure of the public sphere and nationalization of most Egyptian media. Hence, on 12 November 2019, less than two months after the protests, al-Sawy issued Decision no. 2376 establishing a Communication, Guidance, and Social Media Department to monitor, analyze, and respond to issues raised on social media platforms.
The Communication, Guidance, and Social Media Department: A New Tool for Policing Online Content
According to the aforementioned decision, the new department aims to “achieve effective communication between the Public Prosecution and citizens via social media and the various media outlets to clarify facts for the public and refute false news, information, and rumors about the functions it executes”. It also provides “social guidance to prevent the causes of crimes and achieve social security and peace in the interest of society”. The department is divided into three sections:
The decision to establish the department is consistent with the Egyptian government’s policy of policing social media and online content and controlling the news and information circulated on it, in addition to responding to what it deems “rumors and fake news”.
This policy began with the blocking of websites in 2017. Today, more than 500 websites are blocked, according to the Freedom of Expression and Thought Law Firm (AFTE).
Then, on 14 August 2018, Law no. 175 of 2018 on Combating Information Technology Crimes (the “Anti-Cybercrime Law”) was issued for regulating internet use and monitoring social media users. Article 25 punishes “attacking Egyptian family values and principles” – an opaque concept perhaps even vaguer than the term “public morals” used in many Egyptian legal texts – thereby opening the door for the aforementioned campaign against the “TikTok girls”.
Who Protects the Cyber Border?
According to one of the Public Prosecutions statements, “the incident in question has confirmed that a fourth border, besides the land, air, and sea borders, has been created for our country. We now face a new cyber border that consists of websites and, like the other borders, requires full vigilance and deterrence to guard”.
This excerpt summarizes the Public Prosecution’s perception of the Communication, Guidance, and Social Media Department’s new role and the role of the Public Prosecution. The Public Prosecution considers “cyberspace” a “new border for the country” that requires new measures to guard and protect, not merely a space for socializing among citizens that can be regulated via the legislations that protect individuals and public figures from acts such as defamation, extortion, invasions of privacy, and abuse.
The Public Prosecution underscored its commitment to its role in “guarding this new border and firmly confronting such crimes and their perpetrators, who aim to lead the youth of this nation [ummah] astray”. These youth are exposed to “dangers that have slipped through online outlets and a cyber border lacking any kind of monitoring”.
Given this view of the internet as the country’s cyber “border” and the term’s weight and nationalist resonance, the Public Prosecution may not content itself with merely receiving and investigating reports and complaints. Rather, it must launch units to “monitor and surveil” all points along this new border. The Public Prosecution explained this role in most of its statements, mentioning multiple times that “the unit observed broad engagement from social media users, and its Facebook page received several demands for investigation into the aforementioned accused”.
The Public Prosecution’s statements also mentioned that guarding this border is not just its own duty but also a national duty in which all citizens participate. It asked them to report anything they see that warrants an investigation, stating that it “appeals to the users of these websites, young and adult, to partake in their active role in helping the judicial and administrative policing agencies to guard this new border, which comprises millions of websites such that the harmful ones and their evils can only be contained… via comprehensive awareness and integrated engagement from all segments of society”. Such engagement requires citizens to “report anything they deem suspicious and file their complaints and supporting evidence with the guardians of justice in this country, from members of the Public Prosecution to the various security agencies and state institutions concerned”.
These appeals open the door widely for enthusiastic, self-righteous citizens to report, of their own volition, any online content that they deem inappropriate and offensive to the values and principles of Egyptian society, even if it does not constitute a crime under the law.
Naturally, guarding the cyber border involves defending it from conspiracies by the nation’s enemies. In this regard, the Public Prosecution explained that the aim is to “counter phenomena behind which lie forces of evil striving to corrupt our society and its values and principles and to steal its innocence and purity”. Hence, it is no wonder that the supplementary part of its new role is “social guidance to prevent the causes of crimes and achieve social security and peace in the interest of society”.
Accordingly, the Public Prosecution directed several social guidelines to the government and parents, encouraging them “to confront evils seeking to dispel values and embellish obscenities and to preserve the values and principles of this venerable society”. It also implored parents to fulfill “their constant responsibility for their children and bring them back to the moral and religious values and principles upon which this venerable society was established”.
The Public Prosecution also issued guidance to citizens concerning “etiquette on social media websites”, the most important including “not spreading and conveying news and information via ‘sharing’ without verifying it or checking its accuracy or source”.
The morality campaign that the Public Prosecution waged against some women for their use of social media in the name of preserving “Egyptian family values”, as well as the social guidance that accompanied it, received widespread support from Egyptian newspapers, which blessed the “uprising of the Public Prosecution to preserve social values”. Some described the Public Prosecution as “the faithful guardian of society’s values and constant principles”. Hence, the Public Prosecution’s statements in the various preceding cases naturally bore a parental tone directed not at citizens but at children, with the institution seeing itself as sharing society’s parents’ responsibility of “socially monitoring and properly raising its youth”. The ultimate goal of this monitoring is, according to the Public Prosecution, to “check people’s exercise of their freedoms”, “educate the youth”, and “remind adults of how to practice” those freedoms.
The Public Prosecution: Attorney of Society or the Ummah?
The Communication, Guidance, and Social Media Department opened its first statement in the aforementioned campaign (the statement concerning Haneen Hossam) with the Quranic verse, “God wants to be merciful to you but those who follow their evil desires seek to lead you astray”. It ended another statement with the prophetic saying, “Indecency leaves nothing untainted and decency leaves nothing unadorned”.
According to the Constitution, the Public Prosecution is a branch of the civil judicial authorities, whose work is based on the laws issued by Parliament. Nevertheless, the Public Prosecution was eager to include religious texts, prophetic sayings, and Islamic Jurisprudence terminology in its successive statements in these cases, interweaving religious discourse with its own discourse from the outset. Moreover, religious discourse, in one form or another, appears to have been the driving force behind the morality campaign, which explains how the religious concepts of “misdeeds, sins, and heterodoxies” prevailed over the civil concepts of “crime and punishment” in the Public Prosecution’s statements.
This is a grave development as the Public Prosecution, as one of the judicial bodies, has broad authority and powers, the most important including decisions to detain people and initiate criminal proceedings. It is particularly dangerous when religious concepts are used to define the scope of the crime of “attacking Egyptian society’s values and principles” stipulated in the aforementioned Article 25 and as the basis for evidence of what the Public Prosecution called “threatening Egyptian social national security and public tranquility and peace”, especially as the institution is concerned with the interests and rights of millions of citizens of various creeds, religions, and sects.
The Expansion of the Public Prosecution’s Powers
According to the Egyptian Constitution, the Public Prosecution is the custodian of society’s rights and is competent to initiate public proceedings. This role left more space for the executive branch and judicial police officers to conduct the necessary inquiries, question suspects, establish the facts, collect evidence, and then send it to the Public Prosecution for investigation and action. However, following the decision to establish the Communication, Guidance, and Social Media Department, the Public Prosecution is no longer content to wait for the executive branch and judicial police officers to finish investigating and verifying; rather, via the Monitoring and Analysis Unit, it now monitors content published on websites and social media itself.
The positive aspect of this expansion in the Public Prosecution’s role and powers may be that it can quickly clarify false news and rumors, and respond more effectively to certain crimes on which the public demands prompt action. However, the negative aspect is particularly so given the fact that the Public Prosecution uses the aforementioned article of the Anti-Cybercrime Law concerning Egyptian family values and principles and given its aforementioned powers. The danger of this aspect is the institution imposing a kind of paternal, moral, and religious guardianship over social media users. This is especially so given it sees itself as the “guardian of the cyber border” and deems its new role to be bringing citizens “back to the moral and religious values and principles upon which this venerable society was established”.
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.
 The article punishes whoever commits the offense of attacking family principles or values in Egyptian society with at least six months of imprisonment and a fine from EGP50,000 to 100,000 [approx. USD3,185 to 6,370] or one of these two punishments.
 Public Prosecution statement in the Haneen Hossam case, 23 April 2020.
 Public Prosecution statement in the Menna Abdel Aziz case, 30 May 2020.
 Public Prosecution statement, Haneen Hossam case, op. cit.Ibid.
 Public Prosecution statement in the Ahmed Bassem Zaki case, 6 July 2020.
 Paragraph 2 of Article 3 of the decision to establish the Communication, Guidance, and Social Media Department.
 Public Prosecution statement, Haneen Hossam case, op. cit.
 Public Prosecution statement, Ahmed Bassem Zaki case, op. cit.
 “al-Na’ib al-‘Amm wa-Himayat al-Mujtama’”, Youm7, 11 June 2020.
 “Qadaya Fatayat al-TikTok: al-Niyaba al-‘Amma al-Haris al-Amin ‘ala Qiyam al-Mujtama’ wa-Thawabitihi”, Akhbar El Yom, 8 June 2020.
 Public Prosecution statement, Menna Abdel Aziz case, op. cit.
 Quran, 4:27, as translated by Muhammad Sarwar.
 Public Prosecution Statement in the Sama El-Masry case, 27 April 2020.
 Public Prosecution statement, Haneen Hossam case, op cit.