Using SNS to Combat Egyptian Child Trafficking

In this article from the December 2016 issue of Beehive: Middle East Social Media, Michael Barak studies the online efforts of Egyptian civil society to advance social issues, with a focus on child trafficking and kidnappings.
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Online campaign calling for the execution of children’s abductors
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Online campaign calling for the execution of children’s abductors



In recent years, Egyptians have increasingly used social networking sites (SNS) to fight the prevalence of child trafficking and kidnappings. Alongside state authorities and traditional means, such as publishing “missing person” notices, SNS now make a significant contribution to eradicating this phenomenon. Thanks to SNS, hundreds of abducted children have been located and successfully returned to their families. SNS have raised awareness of the issue and of the need to involve citizens in a solution. The choice to turn to SNS in these cases indicates a growing respect for civil society's capacity to create change in Egypt, and impact this and similar issues.

Egypt is one of the countries most troubled by child abduction.[1] In 2014, 1,860 children were kidnapped, and the number doubled during the past two years. [2]In May 2016, the Egyptian research institute Daftar Ahwal found that between June 2015 and May 2016 more than 17,000 criminals were arrested for their involvement in kidnapping children. Kidnapped children were used as street beggars, in gangs, for sexual purposes, and even as targets for organ harvesters. [3] According to Egyptian security authorities, economics are the main reason for the increase in abductions since the toppling of President Mubarak in 2011. [4]

Many families whose children have been abducted identified SNS as an important tool for locating their loved ones. Some families used cyberspace to distribute portraits and offer rewards to those who could help locate their children. However, the impact of these activities was limited and soon died down. In contrast, the Missing Children (“Awlad Mafqudin”) Facebook page raised far more awareness of the issue. The page was founded in 2014 by an Egyptian engineer, Rami al-Jabali, and his wife. This page is considered the largest and most active forum for combating child abduction, with nearly one million members in Egypt. Four female volunteers are responsible for maintaining the page, creating channels of communications with parents of kidnapped children, and uploading identifying information and photographs of missing children. To date, the page has posted more than 8,000 images of children, and is credited with many positive results. According to al-Jabali, more than 150 missing children were identified because of posts on the page, and returned to their families. [5] For example, a video uploaded to SNS shows a reunion made possible by Facebook, between a father and his son, who had disappeared in the Suez area in 2006. [6]

Online campaign against using children as beggars
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Online campaign against using children as beggars




As part of the struggle, al-Jabali periodically initiates online campaigns on the subject. One campaign called on citizens to refrain from donating to beggars aided by children, because of suspicions that the children had been abducted. Another campaign, launched in October 2016, encouraged stricter punishment of abductors, including a call for the death penalty. To support this demand, members of the Facebook page were asked to change their profile pictures to the campaign poster.[7] It should be noted that a similar civil-society campaign, calling for the execution of kidnappers, was conducted in Algeria recently, without connection to the Egyptian campaign. The Algerian campaign included, among other elements, citizens uploading YouTube video selfies on the subject. [8]

Increasing recognition of the success of the Facebook page in locating missing and abducted children has led the Egyptian police to collaborate with the owner. For example, due to this cooperation, a missing child was returned to his father, after he was kidnapped by his mother, who intended to emigrate from Egypt with him, and join the Islamic State.[9] Civic organizations also agreed to cooperate with al-Jabali in launching a campaign, “Together with us,” which is focused on assisting homeless people by uploading their pictures to SNS so they can be identified. Moreover, it appears that the page has inspired other citizens to launch related Facebook campaigns. For example, an online campaign was launched in early 2015, calling on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to issue children serial numbers with pictures of their parents, to facilitate identifying them in the event of kidnapping. [10] Other Facebook pages, like “Campaign against the abduction of children” and “Together in the fight against kidnappers” are dedicated to uploading videos of child-beggars in the streets, recommending precautions to keep children from being kidnapped, and more. [11]

SNS' power is also evident in the criticism leveled by opponents of these initiatives. According to academic circles supportive of the government, SNS blur the truth and have created a false sense among citizens that child abduction occurs regularly in Egypt. For example, an Egyptian academic claimed that there are only a few cases of abducted children - it is not a widespread phenomenon, but rather “lies and rumors without a shred of truth,” and “there is no alternative but to restrict these publications on SNS and television shows.”[12] Some criminal elements also dislike the activities of al-Jabali and his team on SNS, and have threatened their lives, in order to persuade them to stop dealing with the issue. [13]

Many Egyptian citizens consider SNS an alternative to traditional channels of communications for promoting a variety of topics; the kidnapping of children is only one of many examples. This trend may indicate a loss of confidence in the ability of the system to respond to the plight of citizens, and a growing public recognition that SNS have power to change the current situation. Furthermore, by accusing SNS of presenting the wrong image and exaggerating the extent of an issue, government supporters betray concern about a swell in critical discourse, focusing on the government’s inability to ensure the personal safety of citizens, which might lead to increased antagonism toward the regime.

 



[1] For example, see the comments of Khalad Fahami, a member of the housing committee of the Egyptian parliament on the topic, Parlmany.com, September 17, 2016. https://www.parlmany.com/News/4/122647/, September 17, 2016. للقضاء-على-ظاهرة-خطف-الأطفال-نائب-لابد-من-اعدام-الخاطفين

[2] http://www.ahram.org.eg/NewsPrint/568850.aspx, December 18, 2016; for example, 5500 went missing in 2014-15 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlgbNX0c9uQ

[5]For example, see the television program about the finding of a kidnapped child who was found thanks to a SNS, after being missing for 18 months: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwW3dhhwt8Q February 5, 2016.

[8] For example, see this video by an Algerian citizen:Youtube,  September 9, 2016; Youtube,  August 6, 2016.