Analysts believe Egypt’s zero-tolerance policy toward criticism reflects deeper economic insecurities
An Egyptian court sentenced a Lebanese tourist to eight years in prison last week for insulting Egyptians in a video she posted on Facebook last May, state media reported. Mona el-Mazbouh, 24, posted the 10-minute video during her vacation in Cairo.
In the video, she described being harassed by two men in an upscale Cairo neighborhood and being mistreated by a taxi driver. She called Egyptians the “dirtiest people” and Egypt a “son of a bitch country” full of “pimps and beggars” before turning her ire on the political establishment.
She lashed out at Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, calling him “unjust” and telling Egyptians, “You deserve what Sisi is doing to you. I hope God sends you someone more oppressive than Sisi.”
The video—which Mazbouh posted on Facebook while still in the country—quickly spread on Egyptian social media. When she tried to take it down, it was already too late. A swift backlash against her was already underway as angry Egyptians chimed in on social media, demanding her arrest.
Realizing her predicament, she posted a second video apologizing to Egyptians for her angry remarks. “I definitely didn’t mean to offend all Egyptians, and never meant to say anything about the country’s political affairs,” Mazbouh said. Wearing sunglasses and appearing to hold back tears, she added: “I love all Egyptians and I love this country. That’s why I visited it more than once and I keep coming back.”
But her attempt to assuage tempers fell short. While waiting to board a plane out of the country on June 2, authorities stepped in and arrested her, according to the state-run Al-Ahram news agency.
Mazbouh was detained until receiving her sentence, which according to Al-Ahram was initially 11-years in jail and a $598 fine for “deliberately broadcasting false rumors which aim to undermine society and attack religions.” But the sentence was later reduced to eight years for unknown reasons.
While Egyptian law states that “defaming and insulting the Egyptian people” is a crime, questions remain about why Mazbouh received such an extreme punishment.
Human rights advocates and critics of the decision said Mazbouh’s sentence is disproportionate and amounts to a bad public relations move for a country looking to boost its rebounding tourism industry and attract foreign investment.
Prof. Robert Springborg, a leading expert on Egyptian affairs, told The Media Line that Mazbouh’s “case is reflective of the zero-tolerance policy that has been adopted toward any criticism whatsoever by virtually anyone of anything in Egypt—whether political, economic, social, or whatever.”
He added that this and many other aspects of regime policy are bound to be counterproductive over the long term. “In this particular case, the response to harassment of women, whether Egyptian or touristic, is a long established problem about which very little has been done,” Springborg concluded.
Indeed, the country has seen other high-profile cases. Before Mazbouh posted her video in May, authorities arrested Egyptian activist Amal Fathy for a video she posted online in which she railed against Egypt’s “unchallenged sexual harassment.” Fathy is still in prison while her health is reportedly deteriorating, awaiting trial on charges of “inciting terrorism over the Internet and spreading fake news,” according to The New York Times.
Chloe Teevan, a Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Media Line that Mazbouh’s sentence is certainly severe, but noted that “it is quite common in Egypt for such sentences to be passed in the first judgement as a sort of warning.”
Harsh rulings, she explained, are almost always lessened on appeal, and this is likely to be the case with Mazbouh whose hearing is slated for July 29. “So, I would expect she will end up serving one or two years, which, coming from a Western perspective, is still a stunning sentence.”
Teevan added that Mazbouh’s case comes at a time of growing insecurity in Egypt. “The recent presidential elections [last March] saw much lower voter turnout than in previous elections, which shows that support for Sisi is falling.”
She explained the insecurity in terms of brewing resentment over economic policies that Sisi has pursued in his first term and looks poised to continue in his second. They include reforms such as devaluing the currency, introducing a value-added tax, and reducing state subsidies, all of which have resulted in very high levels of inflation.
As a result, she continued, the country’s middle class feels under attack because its purchasing power has been greatly reduced. It was this class which—though small—brought Sisi to power in the first place and is often the catalyst for an economic revival.
Furthermore, she added, “security in Egypt has not improved during Sisi’s first term, which saw several big terrorist attacks and many smaller ones.”
In the face of these challenges, Teevan concluded, Sisi is trying to reinforce his flagging support while cracking down on Egyptian activists and journalists.
“Mazbouh is clearly not a threat to Egyptian national security, but by focusing attention around her and the video she made, the government can distract the public from these deeper concerns.”