Shortly after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s inauguration on June 8, thousands of his supporters gathered in Egypt’s iconic Tahrir square to celebrate their newly elected president.
Amid fireworks, enthusiastic chanting and promising speeches, at least nine cases of sexual violence were later reported.
Soon after sunset, a video emerged showing the horrific assault of a woman and it went viral on social media. The video shows a partially stripped woman, her legs bloody and bruised. A few seconds later, she was totally naked, surrounded by a group of men trying to grope her from all sides, while a police officer attempts to escort her towards an ambulance.
The disturbing story of this woman is not an isolated incident in Egypt.
The NGO “I Saw Harassment,” which usually tracks cases of assault and sends volunteers to rescue victims, was present during the Sisi supporters’ festivities. In a statement, they said that at least four victims had required hospitalisation that night.
Another group “Operation Anti Sexual Harassment,” witnessed “tens of assaults” that same evening. These are only two of the several NGOs that have been founded since the Egyptian uprising in 2011.
“The reason I founded this organisation is because we are all victims of sexual harassment. All Egyptian women face that problem,” says Nihal Saad Zaghloul, co-founder of a similar NGO called “Basma”. According to a survey conducted by the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in 2013, more than 99 percent of Egyptian women are harassed on a daily basis, ranging from catcalling in the streets to gang rapes.
More than 250 mass assaults have been recorded between February 2013 and January 2014, and over 500 incidents since the uprising in 2011, according to figures compiled by a coalition of advocacy groups.
Egyptian rights groups such as “I saw Harassment” and “Basma” have reported sexual assaults and rape cases during celebrations at a rate of 91 women over four days, including children and a 60-year-old woman. Due to the ongoing political unrest, “women’s issues” never became a top priority for those ruling the country.
The revolution may have given an extra boost to these initiatives as women felt they could make a difference in fighting for their rights and position in society. Although the struggle to combat sexual harassment took on bigger proportions after the 2011 revolution, several NGOs had been working on the issue long before the uprising.
Yasmin El Baramawy, victim of a two-hour-long gang-rape near Tahrir Square, wrote about her predicament on Facebook.
“It has been happening for years,” El Baramawy wrote, adding she didn’t only blame the rapists for this extreme violence, but also those who ignore the problem – or didn’t believe her.
El Baramawy is one of the first victims who had the courage to speak out. She filed a complaint at the police station and took her story to the media. The perpetrators still haven’t been punished.
After persistent efforts, there might finally be some hope for the women of Egypt. On June 4, a new law was approved by then interim president, Adly Mansour, criminalising sexual harassment for the first time in modern Egyptian history.
The new law is the result of working groups and workshops organised by over 25 organisations. It was the National Council for Women – an autonomous institution founded by Susan Mubarak, the wife of ousted president Hosni Mubarak – who sent the amendment of the law after consulting with the NGOs.
Women must feel comfortable in speaking out and the police must be educated in how to implement the law, instead of blaming the victims and even becoming perpetrators themselves.
Although not all of the advice coming from the working groups has been taken into account, sexual harassment is finally considered a crime in Egypt and perpetrators might now face penalties, such as long jail terms and high fines.
The first arrests under this new law occurred on June 8. Seven men were arrested in connection to the sexual harassment cases on Tahrir Square. Three of them have been held in custody for four days, pending investigations. They are accused of sexually assaulting the woman seen in the video and her teenage daughter who was accompanying her that night.
Sisi himself only took a stand against these assaults two days after the video was spread and deep dissatisfaction was expressed from several opinion makers, rights groups and on social media. The newly sworn-in president apologised in person to the victim when he visited her in a Cairo hospital.
People eagerly awaited Sisi’s reaction as he played a dubious role concerning women’s rights during the short rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) in the transition period after Mubarak’s ouster. During his first public appearance in April 2011, Sisi publicly defended the imposition of forced virginity tests on women detained during protests on Tahrir Square.
“The virginity tests were done to protect the girls from rape, as well as to protect the soldiers and officers from rape accusation,” Sisi, then chief of military intelligence, said. But both during his election campaign and now as the president, he urged the government to take all necessary measures to combat sexual harassment and implement the new law rigorously.
Nazra, a Cairo-based women’s rights organisation, stated: “The state continues to be unable to stand up to these crimes.” Although met with scepticism, the new law seems to be a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, Amal El Mohandees, a researcher working for Nazra, believes the biggest challenge is yet to come.
“We have worked hard for many years to have this law implemented, but to make real change we need to change this climate of fear and break taboo,” she said. “Women must feel comfortable in speaking out and the police must be educated in how to implement the law instead of blaming the victims and even becoming perpetrators themselves, as this is what happens very often and restrains women to file complaints.”
Several criminologists and political scientists agree that Egypt’s patriarchal society is the root of this problem. “Egypt is a mainly conservative society and with it comes an unrealistic gender ideal and false expectations,” said an Egyptian political scientist, who asked not to be named. “Sexual assaults will continue to exist until society detaches itself from these dominating sexual illusions. The new law is the first step, but definitely not the last one.”