On Safer Internet Day, a look at Egypt's fight against spiking online crimes among young users

Amr Kandil , Tuesday 8 Feb 2022

Today, 8 February 2022, Egypt, along with around 200 countries, are marking the 19th edition of the European Union (EU) wide initiative of ‘Safer Internet Day’ (SID) under the theme “Together for a better internet.”

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A man uses mobile phone to access social media apps. AFP

The SID, which kicked off in 2004 as an initiative of the EU SafeBorders project in 2004 and taken up by the Insafe network as one of its earliest actions in 2005, calls for decision makers as well as civil society institutions and individuals to take actions toward safer digital use by young people.

Cybercrime has spiked across the world during the coronavirus pandemic, according to an analysis report by the Interpol in August 2020. In Africa, forms of cybercrime mainly included cyber attacks due to rise in cashless payments, as well as sextortion, spreading fake news, and phishing, according to the Interpol report.

In 2020, Egypt joined the world in marking the SID to enhance protection of children from online threats, including exposure to harmful content and cyberbullying. In the same year, Egypt's Ambassador to Austria Mohamed El-Mulla has been elected as the Vice-Chair of a UN cybercrime ad hoc committee, which aims to draft a comprehensive international convention that counters the use of information and communication technologies for criminal purposes.

 “Today, together with partners, we launch the ‘Safer Internet’ campaign to stress the importance of protecting children and adolescents also in the cyber space," UNICEF cited Azza El-Ashmawy, late secretary general of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) as saying early in 2020.

El-Ashmawy argued that exposure to violence in cyberspace is “exasperated by the nature of online content being accessible indefinitely as well as by lack of both and adult and child awareness about internet risks.”

Minister of Education Tarek Shawky said social workers in schools who are qualified to deal with negative social behaviours, like sexual harassment and bullying, have become more qualified in light of the expansion of digital access and the rising access of children and adolescents to the internet, the UNICEF reported.

Countering cybercrime by law

Egypt’s internet users have significantly hiked recently, reaching 74.9 million users in November 2021, according to a report issued in December by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

The number of internet users in Egypt through mobile phones alone has reached 63.2 million in November 2021, up from 51.1 million users in November 2020 with nearly 12 million new users, according to the report.

 

In light of the growing number of internet users, the country has been fighting with the power of law cybercrimes committed on the internet, either through using social media or other online platforms, against individuals as well as state institutions.

In 2018, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi ratified an anti-cybercrime law, which places hefty fines and prison sentences on hacking state information systems as well as crimes via information systems and technologies, and crimes related to emails.

The 45-article law, titled “Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes”, is also concerned with combating extremist and terrorist organisations using the internet to plan for terrorist attacks.

Social media has also been the focus of the relevant authorities, with sexual crimes being committed against ladies as well as teenagers and children.

Over the past few years, Egyptian authorities have arrested many young female TikTokers, accusing them of exploiting girls through video-sharing apps for money, violating family values, inciting debauchery and even committing human trafficking crimes online.

Many of them, including the renowned influencers Haneen Hossam and Mawada El-Adham, have already been handed long prison sentences and hefty fines were imposed on them.

A report prepared by Egypt’s National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (NTRA) on the third quarter of 2021 and published in November recorded a significant increase in mobile internet usage in Egypt, with the average monthly consumption rising by 150 percent between September 2020 and September 2021.

Internet surfing increased by 60 percent, social media platforms usage rose by 16 percent, and streaming entertaining content increased by 37 percent, according to the report.

The report recorded a rise in the use of search engines via mobile internet by 29 percent, chats by 163 percent, online games by 20 percent, and remote online meetings by 21 percent.

Watching entertainment clips on online apps, including TikTok, which is popular among teenagers, increased by 733 percent in one year and live video broadcasting increased by 278 percent.

The country has been also struggling against sextortion, with two girls dying by suicide using the same type of poisonous materials after suffering from sexual blackmailing.

On Saturday, the Public Prosecution ordered referring five to criminal trial over blackmailing 16-year-old girl, Haidy, in Sharqia governorate with obscene photos claiming to show her, reportedly leading her to swallow pesticides and dying before reaching hospital.

The prosecution also referred five defendants to a criminal court over charges that include sexual trafficking and blackmailing minor girl, Passant, with "obscene photos" of her in Gharbia governorate, leading her also to kill herself.

In televised remarks following the incident, MP Ehab Ramzy, a law professor, said extortion and threats to uncover personal secrets is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The prosecution called on legislators to consider toughening penalties of crimes violating private life that may drive victims to commit suicide as a result of threats.

The tragic case of Passant, which has been trending on social media, has created an uproar after she left a suicide note asking her mother to believe that the images were fake and that she was not the girl in the photos.

The prosecution urged Egyptian parents to listen to their children and to understand their distress and forgive them for the mistakes they commit instead of leaving them to loneliness that can “lead to dire consequences.”

In a statement, the National Council for Women called for issuing more laws that penalise this sort of blackmail as well as launching awareness campaigns for women and girls so they know their rights and how to protect themselves from these crimes," the NCW statement said, adding that families should believe their girls and stand by them.

The statement stressed that the NCW provides support and assistance to women and girls in similar circumstances, whether through in-person meetings, its hotline (15115), or Whatsapp number (01007525600).

Workshops, support against sexual crimes

Coinciding with the SID, Canadian think-do tank SecDev Foundation’s regional ‘[email protected]’ (Salamat) programme announced launching this week a digital campaign to raise awareness among internet users, especially girls, on how to secure their digital accounts against digital breaches and violations, including blackmailing, sexual harassment, and bullying.

The launch of the programme was carried out in cooperation with Digital Arabia Network (DAN), a platform connecting creative and digital innovators, and the independent Women of Egypt initiative.

[email protected] program aims at raising public awareness of digital risk among women, youth, and civil society groups in the Middle East and North Africa region so that they can use the internet safely.

[email protected]’s digital campaign will last for a month from its launch to explain the most vital digital safety practices in a detailed and simplified manner.

The campaign will also provide free workshops and a meeting with specialists and consultants as part of the program’s efforts to help women and girls who are exposed to any online violations.

“What is concerning is that with the rise of ladies’ use of internet, we expect rise in these [online] crimes, so it has become necessary to raise the awareness of ladies to take steps to protect themselves,” Senior Regional Manager of [email protected] Raed M. Sharif said.

Bassant Helmi, cofounder of DAN, said girls are exposed to a greater percentage of cybercrime as they are vulnerable to all kinds of violence.

The campaign is aimed at helping ladies and also conveying a message to blackmailers and perpetrators of cybercrimes that committing these crimes from behind screens will not protect them from punishment, Helmy said.

Fighting sexual harassment

In July 2020, the cabinet approved a bill proposed by the Justice Ministry that keeps the identity of sex crime victims confidential, and can only be revealed to the court and to defendants upon request, to encourage victims to speak out.

This came few weeks after an Egyptian criminal court sentenced a former university student to eight years in prison on charges of sexually assaulting and blackmailing three girls. Ahmed Bassam Zaki Zaki was also sentenced to three years in prison over sexual crimes, including through using means of communication and social media.

In August last year, President El-Sisi ratified amendments that stiffen penalties against sexual harassment in public or private places whether by gesture, words or action. The amendments also apply to harassment perpetrated through the use of electronic devices.

According to the amendments, violators can face two to four years in prison, and a minimum of seven years if they hold occupational or familial authority over the victim. Repeated offenders can face double the prison time.

Numerous campaigns by state-run as well as private organisations and NGOs have been issued nationwide to support ladies and encourage them to speak up against harassment, including in universities across the various governorates.

 

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