Conflict & Justice

Egypt may finally face its sexual assault problem


Egyptians celebrate in Cairo's landmark of Tahrir Square on June 3, 2014 after ex-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi won 96.9 percent of the vote in Egypt's presidential election.



At first, the blurry video of a celebration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, captured by an onlooker’s cellphone, is difficult to make out.

Fireworks explode nearby as the shaky camera captures a crowd of men, jostling and shouting. Then, flashes of a bruised, half-naked woman at the center of the surging mob.

Women’s rights activists in Egypt have been warning of an epidemic of sexual violence since the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

Scores of women have reported brutal attacks in which crowds of men surround them, strip them naked, and subject them to sustained assaults. In the worst cases, survivors have needed surgery after being violated with knives and other sharp implements.

Despite numerous testimonies, campaigners complain that authorities have taken little action.

But on Sunday, the graphic video of an assault during a celebration for Egypt’s new president was uploaded to social media sites. This time, the public outcry was immediate and official reactions followed, including public condemnations, investigations and arrests.

More than 20,000 Facebook users said they would attend an anti-sexual violence rally in Cairo on Saturday. Demonstrations in favor of women’s rights have been a regular fixture since the 2011 revolution, but usually only attract a few hundred people.

“People now understood what we’ve been talking about for three years now,” Ahmed Nagy, a founder of the Against Sexual Harassment initiative, told GlobalPost.

“We’ve been saying that girls are being stripped totally naked and getting raped in Tahrir, and no one was believing us. The government didn’t do anything about it at the time,” he said.

Official responses to the video were swift. Police announced Monday that seven men had been arrested in connection with incidents of harassment at celebrations of the inauguration of Egypt’s new president, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

Prosecutors subsequently announced that the video was from June 3, when similar celebrations took place in Tahrir. On Saturday, prosecutors released a statement saying that 13 men had been referred to immediate trial for a sexual assault captured on video, as well as for subsequent attacks on six other women.

The men are charged with abduction, forcible sexual assault, attempted rape and attempted murder, and could face life in prison if convicted. 

El-Sisi issued a statement Tuesday condemning the attacks and describing sexual harassment as an “alien phenomenon.”

On Wednesday, he made an unprecedented visit to the woman whose assault was captured in the video. Egyptian television showed the president handing the woman a large bouquet of flowers as she lay in a hospital bed, and apologizing to her “and to all Egyptian women.”

After years of official dismissal of the problem, some campaigners see signs of progress in the flurry of responses.

Hania Moheeb, an Egyptian journalist who was assaulted in Tahrir in 2012, told CNN that she was “happy that (El-Sisi) spoke about the issue ... I think that if he has the will and declared that he has the will then something will happen."

Noora Flinkman, communications manager at the anti-harassment initiative Harassmap, agreed that El-Sisi’s condemnation was “a strong statement” but said that it was “difficult to tell if that will lead to concrete action or not.”

“It plants the idea in the minds of society that this is not acceptable, but what we need now is not an apology. We need justice, and an investigation into all cases, not just this one,” she told GlobalPost.

Not all public responses to the video have been welcomed by campaigners.

A number of public figures suggested that the sexual assault was orchestrated by political groups hostile to Egypt’s interests.

Tahani El-Gibali, a former Supreme Constitutional Court judge, dismissed the issue of harassment as a “marginal problem.” In comments to a local television channel, she accused the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood of being behind the videoed attack in an attempt to “exclude women from the square.”

A statement by the state-run National Council for Women endorsed the idea that attacks were planned by outside parties, with the aim of “stealing Egyptian women’s happiness.”

In a phone interview with a local channel on Monday, council head Mervat Tellawy said that she had toured polling stations in poor areas during last month’s presidential election, and hadn't seen any sexual harassment. “This makes us suspicious — is this [attack] the kind of 100 or 200 pound job given to street kids or thugs so that they can ruin the mood?”

Flinkman argues that attempts to blame the attacks on political groups are “very simplistic.”

“These attacks are often used in political arguments, but from our experience of the last couple of years, mob assaults have been happening at demonstrations [both] against the state and against the Muslim Brotherhood, at celebrations when Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power and when Sisi was inaugurated. They happen during non-political holidays like concerts and sporting events, in all kinds of contexts.”

Nagy, who along with representatives of a number of different anti-harassment groups attended an emergency meeting with the National Council for Women on Tuesday to discuss sexual violence, said that the accusations were symptomatic of a failure to understand the phenomenon.

State officials “don’t understand that it’s deeper than that. They think everyone is paid, or it’s a conspiracy. We objected to this talk very strongly at the meeting,” he said.

Many women’s rights campaigners object to the idea that the attacks were politically motivated. In addition, two prominent anti-sexual violence groups, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and the Uprising of Women in the Arab World, announced they were withdrawing from the rally on Saturday in objection to the council’s participation in the event, citing the body’s past failures to deal with the issue of mob sexual violence.

Nagy, however, believes that despite their disagreements, activists need to work with the authorities in order to see real progress.

“We have to work with the state on this issue, to create a long-term strategy against violence,” he said, citing the formation of a ministerial committee at the behest of Sisi to look into the issue as potentially a good step forward.

“We’ve been working on this for years now. We don’t know yet if this case will be different, but we hope so. People saw the video now, and they understand what the assaults look like. Before, they couldn’t imagine how bad it was.”