New President, Old Pattern of Sexual Violence in Egypt

by Vickie Langohr | published July 7, 2014

For background on activism against public sexual violence in Egypt, see Vickie Langohr, “‘This Is Our Square’: Fighting Sexual Assault at Cairo Protests,Middle East Report 268 (Fall 2013).

On June 3, the day that the Elections Commission announced the victory of ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt’s presidential race, television announcer Radwa Ruhayyim covered the festivities in Tahrir Square. Surrounded by ululating revelers, she noted that, amidst the celebrations, several women had been assaulted. [1] Live coverage of the June 8 inauguration festivities also included references to assaults that day. Tragically, the story of mass sexual assaults at large political gatherings is nothing new. Between November 2012 and August 2013, over 200 women were assaulted at political events including celebrations of the second anniversary of the January 25 uprising against Husni Mubarak and protests against President Muhammad Mursi in 2012 and 2013. The women were surrounded by large groups of men who tore their clothes, groped their bodies and penetrated them with their fingers or, in some cases, with bladed instruments. Some women were so badly injured that their hymens were torn and their reproductive organs permanently damaged.

What was new about the assault cases of June 2014, including nine on inauguration day, was that one was filmed in an unprecedentedly graphic manner. A video of a naked and badly bruised woman in Tahrir being brought to an ambulance began circulating widely on inauguration day. While survivors of previous assaults had recounted their experiences in detail on television, the visual evidence of the video sparked unprecedented public attention. Discussions of the week’s assaults dominated TV shows for days: Sisi, bearing a bouquet of red roses as if he were a suitor, made a televised visit to a hospitalized assault victim and promised change. A new committee to combat sexual violence, including representatives from several ministries, al-Azhar University and the Coptic Church, met on June 12. The Interior Ministry announced a new department that would secure the kinds of large events where women have been harassed and assaulted, and promised to prosecute cases of violence. Most importantly, on June 25, 11 men went on trial for allegedly participating in assaults in Tahrir on January 25, 2013, and on June 3 and 8 of this year, including the case of the survivor in the video. [2] Only weeks before, sustained pressure from anti-violence groups had prompted acting president ‘Adli Mansour to sign into law amendments to the penal code which, for the first time, offer an explicit definition of sexual harassment in place of vaguely defined offenses such as “indecent assault” and “inappropriate public acts,” and which specify clear penalties for the crime. These measures might signal a new state willingness to combat public sexual violence.

Recent experience, however, provides many reasons for skepticism. Under four previous governments -- those of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Mursi and the nominally civilian rule of Mansour -- court cases brought by survivors of mass assault have been prosecuted only when the government could achieve some political gain, usually when government adversaries could plausibly be blamed for the assaults. In addition, state security tactics to quash protest since Mursi’s overthrow have likely worsened harassment and may have decreased the chances of rescuing survivors from assault. Since August 2013, the Tahrir Metro stop -- the city’s busiest -- has been closed in order to prevent protesters from emerging directly into Tahrir. This closure has led to unprecedented crowding in other stations, facilitating the kind of sexual harassment which was already endemic on public transit. [3] Crackdowns on most forms of street-level organizing led some of the activists who coordinate teams to rescue women from assault during Tahrir gatherings to suspend their work. [4] The government will need to do much more than make small revisions to the criminal code and create new task forces to effectively combat public sexual violence.

Refusal and Silence

In March 2014, 15 feminist groups, anti-sexual harassment and anti-assault initiatives, and human rights organizations issued a call for the state to create a “national strategy” against sexual violence. The call singled out institutions such as the Ministries of Interior, Health and Justice and the National Council of Women, the state body charged with protecting women’s rights. [5] The shortcomings of these institutions and others in dealing with public sexual assault were on full display during and after the June assaults. During the events, the police seemed completely overwhelmed. On orders from Sisi, the interior minister awarded commendations to several officers who had intervened in the assaults of inauguration week. In an interview broadcast from the Interior Ministry after the June 10 commendation ceremony, Capt. Mustafa Thabit, whom Sisi praised by name, claimed he had found “thousands” of people around a woman who was being assaulted. In order to reach her, Thabit and his colleagues fired so many warning shots into the air that they ran out of ammunition, and it took them an hour and a half just to get the survivor away from her assailants. [6]

On the same day, the failings of the medical system were excoriated for over two hours on a popular evening talk show. A friend of one of the most badly injured assault victims described to host Lamis al-Hadidi how she had accompanied her burned and bleeding friend to at least four public hospitals, none of which would admit her. When an assistant to the health minister called in to the show, Hadidi yelled, “Where is the minister? Instead of going to visit the ill woman and get[ting] his picture taken with her, where is the minister in order to confront this disaster? Or is he waiting, afraid to lose his cabinet seat?” Hadidi continued, “Please wake up the minister right now. Instead of him going and getting his picture taken, I wish you would wake him up so he could get to work.” [7] Forty-five minutes later, the minister called in to promise an investigation. [8] After several days, he reported that a doctor had been transferred and an emergency room director suspended in one of the four hospitals. He also promised changes to hospital admission policies. Assault survivors have been turned away from hospitals before. In one case, a woman raped with a bladed weapon on January 25, 2013 was taken, hemorrhaging badly, to a nearby hospital. An anti-assault volunteer assisting her told the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence that they were offered no help and told to wait for a gynecologist who never arrived. An ambulance then refused to take the survivor to a different hospital, so the volunteer drove the survivor in her own car to another hospital, which admitted her. [9]

As front-line security and health institutions failed to meet the sexual assault challenge, other institutions denied the scope of the problem, or blamed women for it. The day after the assault video began circulating, the spokesperson for the state forensics department, Hisham ‘Abd al-Hamid, took issue with what he characterized as statements being made on many television programs that “sexual harassment has become a (widespread) phenomenon.” He estimated that about 4,000 sexual attacks were reported annually to his office, compared to 600,000 rapes a year in the United States. ‘Abd al-Hamid then argued that seven or eight women, out of his own estimate of between 50,000 and 100,000 women in the crowd in Tahrir on June 8, had been assaulted that day, leading him to conclude that “society is still fine.” [10] The National Council for Women said of the inauguration week assaults “that shameful behavior is not the behavior of the millions who led the January 25 and June 30 revolutions, where millions occupied Egypt’s square with no single recorded sexual harassment incident.” [11] In fact, anti-assault groups documented 101 cases of assault, including at least three rapes, in anti-Mursi protests in and around Tahrir between June 28 and July 2, 2013. [12] On the first Friday after the June 2014 attacks, Sheikh Sami ‘Abd al-Qawi gave the sermon in the ‘Umar Makram mosque, one of Cairo’s biggest. ‘Abd al-Qawi was reported to have strongly denounced harassment but also asserted that a major cause of harassment was “scantily dressed” women whose clothing revealed their “attractions.” [13]

Though the government has condemned the inauguration week attacks, it has done little, if anything, to hold state actors who excuse or commit public sexual violence accountable. The Ministry of Religious Endowments claims the right to “regulate religious discourse” and the authority to fire clerics who stray from the Ministry’s official rhetoric. [14] While the Ministry belongs to the committee tasked with addressing sexual harassment and assault, to date it has not publicly repudiated ‘Abd al-Qawi’s statements. Publicly censuring state-appointed actors who justify harassment or diminish the problem is critical, but by far the most important thing the government can do to discourage mass sexual assault is to deliver serious sentences to perpetrators convicted in timely, transparent and fair trials. If conducted fairly, the trial of the 11 suspects that began on June 25 would be a first step toward ending impunity, as no one has yet been held accountable for any mob assault at a political gathering.

The experience of perhaps the best-known survivor of such an assault -- Yasmine al-Baramawy -- is indicative of the government’s approach to date. Baramawy was brutally attacked while protesting in Tahrir on November 22, 2012. She and other survivors filed a criminal case in March 2013; government investigators took her statement, and those of eyewitnesses, over the next month. The prosecution did not contact Baramawy again until June 10, 2014 -- two days after the Tahrir assault video went viral -- when she was summoned to examine a lineup of suspects.

Protectors or Perpetrators?

In an article groundbreaking for its in-depth analysis of both causes of, and organizing against, public sexual violence, Cairo-based activists Dalia ‘Abd al-Hameed and Hind Mahmoud argued that the scope of public sexual violence has overwhelmed the police, who lack the professional competence to address it. [15] Capt. Thabit’s account of the rescue in Tahrir certainly bears this out. But “at the same time,” ‘Abd al-Hameed and Mahmoud note, “the state itself, with its various security arms, remains a perpetrator of sexual violence and thus there is no reason to assume good intentions on its part.” Indeed, all attempts to hold state officials directly responsible for past mob assaults criminally responsible have failed.

In December 2012 Rami Sabry and Ola Shahba were beaten -- and Shahba was sexually assaulted -- by supporters of President Mursi during protests at the presidential palace. Shahba’s attackers also took her to a police officer, who told her assailants, “whatever you want, I will do it to her.” [16] After testifying in court on May 13, 2014, Sabry and Shahba released a statement blasting the politicization of the courts, notingthat their case had been prosecuted only after Mursi was removed from office. They criticized the fact that non-Muslim Brother attackers whom they had named were not being prosecuted, including the police officer who temporarily imprisoned Shahba. Police officers who participate in public assaults have been able to do so with impunity. In one of the most famous cases of mass assault, women were attacked by thugs hired by the Mubarak regime during a May 2005 protest against a referendum on constitutional amendments at the Journalists’ Syndicate. Journalist Nora Younis photographed two uniformed officers at the protest, one of whom ordered colleagues to gather the women in a small space near the building’s garage, and then had them clear the way for the thugs to attack. Younis brought the pictures to the public prosecutor, but two years later the government closed the case, claiming they could not identify the officers. [17]

There is copious evidence that sexual violence is used against both men and women in police custody. At a conference at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center on June 22, a woman testified that police tried to rape her in a Cairo police station to pressure her husband into confessing to charges they had made against him. She said that she was attacked in a room adjacent to her husband’s cell and that, upon hearing her screams, he told the police, “Tell me what you want me to say, but don’t do this.” [18] Twenty-two women arrested in student demonstrations have alleged that they were subjected to “virginity tests” in the Qanatir prison in January 2014 despite the fact that in December 2011 a court ruled that the military could no longer conduct such exams. [19] So far, the government remains unwilling to brook suggestions of state participation in sexual violence. At a June 14 march against the inauguration week assaults, activist Hermas Fawzy began making a sign with the slogan “policemen are harassers.” Before he could finish writing, he was arrested; while in police custody Fawzy was threatened with punishment “worse than harassment.” [20]

First Steps

While the government had done little to address mass sexual assault before the inauguration week attacks, some positive changes in fighting sexual harassment have occurred, largely as a result of the work of civil society. In addition to groups such as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault and Tahrir Bodyguard, which were created in 2012 to intervene directly in mass assaults at protests, many other groups have formed to combat sexual harassment in the streets and public transportation, and to prevent mass assaults that often occur in the large gatherings for the Muslim religious holidays, the ‘ids. Their activities provided crucial momentum for the recent penal code amendments on sexual harassment, in part because of the coverage their work received in the media. Stories about anti-harassment activism prompted a larger conversation about harassment on almost all of the most-watched talk shows on Egyptian satellite television over the past two years. Some activist critiques of early drafts of the penal code amendments may have influenced the final language, though it is impossible to be certain, given the opaque drafting process. [21] It is clear that two specific concerns raised by activists about language reportedly suggested by the National Council for Women -- that sexual harassment would be limited to incidents in which women were followed by harassers, and that the law would not recognize men as potential victims of harassment -- did not appear in the final amendments.

Small, but important changes can also be seen in the public discourse about group sexual attacks. Another video, this time of a student at Cairo University being hounded and harassed by a group of young men, went public on March 16, 2014. The next day, Cairo University president Gabir Nassar condemned the incident on television, but spent most of his time criticizing the female survivor’s clothing. Nassar was immediately rebuked on the same program by Fathy Farid, the coordinator of the group I Saw Harassment, which was responsible for publicizing the video. [22] Shortly after the program ended, Nassar tweeted an apology for his comments; the next day, Nassar personally met with members of I Saw Harassment in his office, and committed Cairo University to sign a protocol of cooperation with the group, allowing them to conduct anti-harassment activities on campus. [23] Two days later, Nassar and Farid announced the partnership between I Saw Harassment and the university on another television program, during which Nassar argued that even a naked woman did not deserve harassment. [24] Although the protocol was never signed, the university formed a new unit to combat harassment and assault on campus. Time will tell if this unit will make any tangible progress in preventing on-campus harassment, but the head of a major public institution being called to account by an anti-harassment initiative on television, apologizing and taking action is unprecedented.

The circulation of videos that document assaults -- despite concerns about the privacy of survivors -- has forced the issue of sexual harassment into mainstream public discourse and made the phenomenon harder to deny. Marwan ‘Arafa, who posted the inauguration week assault video to YouTube, wrote that he had done so because “the video made clear to hundreds of thousands a catastrophe that faces the women of Egypt and Egyptian society as a whole…. And most Egyptians still don’t believe that it is a problem, or they blame the victim.” ‘Arafa likened the video to the post-mortem photo of Khalid Sa‘id -- the 25-year-old middle-class youth beaten to death by police in 2010 -- arguing that the tangible proof of police abuse was essential for galvanizing public opinion against the Mubarak regime. Sensitive to the privacy of the survivor, he removed the video in response to her reported wishes. [25] Yasmine al-Baramawy thanked ‘Arafa in a Facebook post for publicizing the attack; she said that if a video of her own assault existed, she would have shared the video through social media after obscuring her face. Her decision to speak in the media in February 2013 was made only after confirming that no such video existed, and after more women were assaulted on January 25, 2013. Baramawy felt that going public was the only way to prove that such assaults were occurring. [26] It remains to be seen whether the inauguration week video and the discussion it has sparked will be sufficient to break down years of official and societal denial about public sexual violence. For now, the state has been forced to at least appear to be doing something about assaults. But the direct state participation in sexual violence against activists and people in custody demonstrates that the kind of police brutality which killed Sa‘id -- and helped fuel the uprising against Mubarak -- still flourishes.

Endnotes

[1] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXRlDFLmNx8&list=UUoVR7snCGfaMb9lu87Yd0aw.
[2] Nadine Marroushi, “Tahrir Square Sexual Assault Trial Begins,” Mada Masr, June 25, 2014.
[3] “‘I Saw Harassment’ Demands that the President Open the Sadat Metro Station,” February 10, 2014.
[4] See Tahrir Bodyguards Facebook page, June 10, 2014.
[5] See “A Joint Statement: Feminist and Human Rights Groups and Organizations Demand  A National Strategy to Combat Violence Against Women and A Law Including All Forms of Sexual Violence,” March 31, 2014.
[6] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpOJwx8okNQ.
[7] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6R8F6Jqnl0.
[8] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Esv5ejX3X5Q.
[9] Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, “Testimonies of Sexual Torture in the Vicinity of Tahrir,” February 10, 2013.
[10] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGqGC_r8BgY.
[11] Al-Ahram, June 9, 2014.
[12] FIDH, Nazra for Feminist Studies, New Women Foundation and The Uprising of Women in the Arab World, “Egypt: Keeping Women Out -- Sexual Violence Against Women in the Public Sphere,” March 2014.
[13] Al-Wafd, June 14, 2014. [Arabic]
[14] Mai Shams El-Din, “No Freedom in Delivering Sermons, Says State Official,” Mada Masr, April 3, 2014.
[15] Dalia ‘Abd al-Hamid and Hind Mahmoud, “Women As Fair Game in the Public Sphere: A Critical Introduction for Understanding Sexual Violence and Methods of Resistance,” Jadaliyya, January 8, 2014. [Arabic] [Translated into English, July 9, 2014.]
[16] “Akhir Kalam,” ON TV, December 6, 2012.
[17] Interview with the author, Cairo, May 28, 2014.
[18] Al-Misry al-Yawm, June 23, 2014. [Arabic]
[19] Al-Karama, March 9, 2014.
[20] Personal communication, June 16, 2014.
[21] Nazra for Feminist Studies, “Joint Statement: Feminist and Human Rights Organizations Demand that the Presidency Propose Bills Against Violence Against Women In A Transparent Manner After A True Societal Dialogue,” April 1, 2014.
[22] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aICv7-UZEO4#t=10.
[23] Interview with the author, Cairo, May 27, 2013.
[24] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nxh_b2sMkiA
[25] Marwan ‘Arafa, “Marwan ‘Arafa Writes: ‘These Are The Reasons Why I Will Remove the Video of The Woman Harassed In Tahrir,” Yanayir, June 11, 2014. [Arabic]
[26] Personal communication, June 15, 2014.

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