Egypt: Satire Suppressed: The Arrest of Street Children as Seen on Social Media

Michael Barak analyzes the recent arrest of members of an Egyptian satirical street theater troupe, "Street Children" for using social media for ostensibly 'inciting terrorism.'


On May 10, an Egyptian court sentenced four members of the satirical street theater troupe, "Street Children" (Atfal Shuwarei), to 15 days in prison. The young men were accused of using social networking sites (SNS), particularly the video sharing site YouTube,[1] for the purpose of: 

“Spreading ideas that incite acts of terrorism and participation in mass events aimed at harming the security of the regime, and calling for the establishment of a group to work against the basic principles of the state, advocate against the authorities and cooperate with others in deliberately disseminating false information and messages against the governmental system.”

The arrest of troupe members sparked a major protest on SNS that demanded their release, and sharply criticized the regime’s policy of silencing people. This case demonstrates, once again, the gap between the Egyptian public’s need for freedom of expression and the regime that finds it difficult to deal with such a demand, and therefore uses obsolete means of enforcement and policing to silence them.

Street Children, made up of six members ages 19 to 25, began operating on SNS in 2016. Its declared purpose is to communicate the sentiments of ordinary citizens on social and political issues. To date, their activity has been characterized by sarcastically expressing criticism of government policy using satirical selfie videos featuring members of the group. In one video, for example, they chant “al-Sisi, why do people hate you?”[2] They then upload the videos to SNS, especially Facebook and YouTube, where some have been viewed by one million or more users. The group’s Facebook page, which had 300,000 followers, states that its members are “young men working in theater. We decided to shoot videos in the street accompanied by crazy ideas... you can meet us anywhere... even if your day is crowded or choked...the street is filled with laughter.”[3]

The site was closed when the members were arrested but was reopened a few days later. Following the actors’ arrest, young activists and Egyptian journalists launched a protest campaign on SNS, demanding their release, the cancellation of the charges against them, and calling on the regime to allow freedom of expression. Criticism was mostly shared using the hashtags #freedomforstreetchildren[4] and #freedomtolaugh.[5] On Facebook, they created a page entitled “Freedom for Laughter.”[6] Omar Hamzawy, a professor at the University of Cairo, tweeted: “The Street Children became victims of suppression because of songs. Your freedom has been denied as your songs are being played. In the republic of fear, the citizen is a source of worry to be kept quiet.”[7] Many Egyptian users in Egypt and abroad uploaded selfie photos and videos to SNS as a sign of solidarity with the arrested actors, together with the taunting caption, “al-Sisi, does a cellphone camera scare you?”[8] The renowned satirist Bassem Yusuf, uploaded two selfie videos addressing the issue and accusing al-Sisi of oppressing young people for fear of losing power.[9]

Furthermore, young Egyptians posted an online petition signed by several scholars and activists, including the former Minister of Culture, Emad Abu Ghazi, and head of the Human Rights Committee of the Egyptian Parliament, Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat (a relative of the former Egyptian President). The petition states that the undersigned wish to express their protest over the suppression of freedom of expression, seen in the repeated persecution and arrests of artists, writers and liberals on the grounds that they are a security threat. Moreover, it argues that silencing them amounts to prohibiting satire as a means of expression.[10]

Opponents of the al-Sisi government affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of the protests to attack the Egyptian regime and its leader, and also uploaded messages to SNS. In a commercial broadcast on the satellite channel al-Sharq, which broadcasts from Istanbul and is associated with al-Sisi’s critics, the newscaster stressed that al-Sisi has no right to silence the voices of young people.[11] This is not the first time that the Muslim Brotherhood has adopted political and social issues on the agenda for their own political gain and to raise awareness of issues it wants to promote, such as the campaign protesting the poor physical conditions of inmates in Egyptian prisons.[12]

This campaign, distributed in five languages, used the hashtags #prisonerchoking and #Iwanttobreathe to put pressure on the Human Rights Commission to intervene on behalf of prisoners. According to the activists, the prison cells are extremely and inhumanely hot, which causes prisoners to become sick and even die.

As a sign of solidarity with the prisoners, activists uploaded pictures of their heads covered with plastic bags, to illustrate the inability of prisoners to breathe. [13] 

The arrest of members of a satirical street theater troupe shows the Egyptian government’s concern about the influence of SNS in shaping public opinion, especially of young people. Yet young Egyptians make extensive use of SNS to lash out at the regime and express their frustration about the lack of rights and curtailed freedom of expression. The regime, which has not yet managed to develop suitable tools for dealing with online incitement or protest, uses traditional means for silencing discourse on SNS, including arrests. In any event, it is clear that both the regime and the Egyptian people consider SNS to be very important.



[1] YouTube Channel of Street Children [no longer active].

[4] #الحريه_لاطفال_الشوارع

[5] #الحريه_للضحكه


[12] See for example, Michael Barak, “The Tiran and Sanafir Islands at the Heart of an Online Protest,” Beehive 4, no. 4 (April 2016),

[13] #عايز_اتنفس; #مسجون_مخنوق