During a trip to Egypt, a Lebanese tourist posted a negative online review. For that, she was sentenced to 8 years in prison.
Feedback is almost always going to be a mixed bag. Some people will cite valid criticism over something. For others, there’s always got to be “that one person”. While negative reviews are a very common occurrence online whether warranted or not, it’s what happened next that is causing digital rights advocates to do a double-take.
A 24 year old Lebanese woman decided to take a vacation to Egypt. During that trip, she posted an online video, ranting about her trip. She lashed out, saying that she was sexually harassed. She accused the Egyptian people of being pimps and prostitutes.
From there, the video circulated and she received backlash. In response, she took down the video and posted a second video issuing an apology to the Egyptian people. While it would be understandable that the Egyptian people would still be upset, it would be reasonable to assume that this would be the end of the story. Unfortunately, that is not the case here.
At the end of her vacation, she attempted to board her plane at Cairo only to be arrested by Egyptian authorities. She was brought before the courts and ultimately found guilty of “deliberately spreading false rumors that would harm society, attacking religion, and public indecency.”
According to Reuters, she was ultimately sentenced to 8 years in prison for her actions. From the report:
A Lebanese tourist who was arrested last month for posting a video on Facebook complaining of sexual harassment and conditions in Egypt was sentenced to eight years in prison by a Cairo court on Saturday, her lawyer told Reuters.
An appeal court will now hear the case on July 29, according to Mazboh’s lawyer, Emad Kamal.
“Of course, God willing, the verdict will change. With all due respect to the judiciary, this is a severe ruling. It is in the context of the law, but the court was applying the maximum penalty,” he said.
While not everyone is defending her initial actions, many are pointing out that the reaction is over the top and disproportionate. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is certainly talking about this case:
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 discusson. 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.
While the video’s unexpected spread certainly played a role in the events, the thing is, had it not been for the prison sentence handed down, the story probably wouldn’t have made international headlines. Indeed, had there not been an 8 prison sentence associated with her actions, it would definitely not have made headlines around here. That alone is proof that the prison sentence is only spreading the story that much further.
As of now, at least one government has already taken precautionary measures in response to the move. Egyptian Streets is pointing to a travel advisory published on the UK government website which states the following:
Publicising strongly negative opinions about Egypt or making political comments, including about the President or security forces, can cause trouble with the authorities. In some cases, derogatory comments on social media have led to custodial sentences.
We looked at the US and Canadian government websites for travel advisories related to online speech, but as of this writing, we did not see anything.