When she went to Egypt for vacation, Mona el-Mazbouh surely didn’t expect to end up in prison. But after the 24-year-old Lebanese tourist posted a video in which she complained of sexual harassment—calling Egypt a lowly, dirty country and its citizens “pimps and prostitutes”—el-Mazbouh was arrested at Cairo’s airport and found guilty of deliberately spreading false rumors that would harm society, attacking religion, and public indecency. She was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The video that el-Mazbouh posted was ten minutes long, and went viral on Facebook, causing an uproar in Egypt. In the video, el-Mazbouh also expressed anger about poor restaurant service during Ramadan and complained of her belongings being stolen. Egyptian men and women posted videos in response to her original video, prompting el-Mazbouh to delete the original video and post a second video on Facebook apologizing to Egyptians.
Nevertheless, Mona was arrested at the end of her trip at the Cairo airport in May 31, 2018 and charged with “spreading false rumors that aim to undermine society, attack religions, and public indecency”. Under Egyptian law, “defaming and insulting the Egyptian people” is illegal. Mona was originally sentenced to 11 years in prison, but her sentence was reduced to eight years after her lawyer presented evidence that a 2006 surgery removing a blood clot from her brain impaired her ability to control anger. An anticipated appointment with an appeal court is set to hear her case on July 29th.
Unhappy tourists have always criticized the conditions of the countries they visit; doing so online, or on video, is no different from the centuries of similar complaints that preceded them offline or in written reviews. Beyond the injustice of applying a more vicious standard online to offline speech, this case also punishes Mona for a reaction that was beyond her control. Mona had no influence over whether her video went viral. She did not intend her language or her actions to reach a wider audience or become a national topic of discussion. It was angry commenters’ reactions and social media algorithms that made the video viral and gave it significance beyond a few angry throwaway insults.
The conviction of Mona el-Mazbouh is just one of many in a series of disproportionate actions taken by General Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s administration against dissent, including similar cases such as the detainment of Egyptian activist Amal Fathy. Sisi’s administration has so far fostered a zero-tolerance policy towards any kind of dissent, involving regressive legislation surrounding freedom of expression, reinstating a state of emergency, and detaining hundreds of dissidents without proper due process. Many of the administration’s actions have fallen under the pretext of “preventing terrorism”, including a much-dreaded anti-terrorism cybersecurity bill that will put Egyptian freedom of expression even more at risk.
Mona el-Mazbouh is just one of many innocent Internet users who have been caught up in the Egyptian governments’ attempts to vilify and control the domestic use of online media. At minimum, she should be released from her ordeal and returned to her country immediately. But more widely, Egypt’s leaders need to pull back from their hysterical and arbitrary enforcement of repressive laws, before more people — including the foreign visitors on which much of Egypt’s economy is based — are hurt.