El Sisi orders crackdown on sexual harrassment following Tahrir Square assaults
At least nine women were sexually assaulted by mobs in Cairo’s Tahrir Square between June 3 and 8, during celebrations of Mr El Sisi’s electoral win and his inauguration, drawing widespread criticism from human-rights groups for the state’s failure to curb a growing problem.
Mr El Sisi has ordered the rapid implementation of a new law to combat sexual harassment, according to a presidential spokesperson, which could see offenders sentenced to prison terms between six months and five years.
A video circulated on social media showed one of the victims on the evening of June 8 in a melee of men with fireworks and vuvuzela horns sounding in the background. A single white-uniformed police officer runs to the scene and there is a close-up of the woman naked, bloodied and bruised. The police officer drags her away to a nearby vehicle, still naked, as men crowd around her.
A statement issued on Tuesday by the non-governmental organisation Nazra for Feminist Studies and signed by a further 25 rights groups condemned the state’s lack of a comprehensive strategy to deal with the hundreds of cases of sexual harassment, mob sexual assaults and rape that they have documented since 2011.
“The undersigned have followed the latest changes to the criminal law related to sexual violence, and we confirm that the changes are not enough to hold the perpetrators of these crimes accountable,” the statement reads.
The NGO said there had been at least 500 sexual violence survivors between February 2011 and January 2014.
Three days before Mr El Sisi’s swearing-in, the interim president, Adly Mansour, issued changes to the penal code that defined sexual harassment as a crime. Before this, Egypt did not have a law defining sexual harassment.
A 2013 United Nations study found that nine out of 10 Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual assault, ranging from minor harassment to rape.
Egypt’s interior ministry, which runs the police force, said they arrested 10 men between the ages of 15 and 49 for the sexual assaults in Tahrir Square during the recent pro-Sisi celebrations.
Major General Hani Abdel Latif, the ministry’s spokesman, blamed the incidents on overcrowding in the square and society’s loose morals.
“There were at least 200,000 people celebrating in the square, and some people took advantage of the large crowds and loud noises. But the police got involved and got the women out,” he told The National.
“This problem is societal, and not just related to security,” Gen Abdel Latif said. “With increased security operations and crackdowns, we expect this phenomenon and society’s loose morals to come to an end.”
Cases of mob sexual assaults on women in public places have been rising in Egypt for years.
In 2005, four women, including journalists, were beaten, sexually assaulted and had their clothes ripped off by plain-clothes policemen and thugs affiliated with the now dissolved National Democratic Party during a protest calling for a boycott of a referendum called by then-president Hosni Mubarak on amendments to the constitution. The day is referred to by rights groups as “Black Wednesday”.
Since then, mob sexual harassment of women by young men during public holidays has been a growing phenomenon.
The problem grew worse amid the security vacuum created by the January 2011 uprising, and the large number of protests in Tahrir Square, the focal point of demonstrations that brought down two presidents in the past three years. In some of the cases of mob sexual assault and rape, sharp objects were used on the women.
Nazra for Feminst Studies said it has documented more than 250 cases of mob sexual assaults and rape in crowded places such as Tahrir Square between November 2012 and January 2014.
The interior ministry’s department for violence against women said it had no knowledge of such incidents taking place.
Colonel Manar Moukhtar, a senior policewoman in the department, said: “During my 25 years in the police force, I have not dealt with incidents of mob sexual assaults before. It has never come to my attention.”
The official National Council for Women has also denied on its website that any incidents of sexual harassment took place during the January 25 and June 30 revolutions, contradicting reports by human rights groups and the testimony of victims.
For activists like Aalam Wassef, co-founder of a volunteer group called Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault Initiative, which was formed in 2012 to prevent sexual assaults on female protesters in Tahrir Square, the latest incidents are a test for Mr El Sisi’s presidency.
“This case is very important, because it didn’t go unseen, and there is a law and a president that has just been elected,” Mr Wassef said.
“It’s a test for the government, the police and judiciary, and I’ll be interested to see what happens, particularly given how the issue has snowballed from social media to the press and TV,” he added. “The problem is no longer being denied, and that’s huge.”
The privately owned Al Watan newspaper’s main headline on its front-page on Tuesday had the words “execute them” in bold red letters over a black banner, in reference to those behind the assaults.
A television host of the pro-Sisi Tahrir channel, Maha Bahnassy, made a public apology on her Facebook account on Monday for making light of the sexual harassment incidents. As a female correspondent reported on the assaults on Sunday, Ms Bahnassy was overheard on air giggling. “Well, they are happy,” she said. “The people are having fun”.
The National Council for Women said on its website that “such shameful and immoral behaviour cannot come from the honourable Egyptians” who support Mr El Sisi. Instead, the council said, “unknown entities” were plotting “to commit such heinous acts in a systematic way to ruin Egyptians’ happiness and taint the image of its democratic celebration”.
Egypt’s prosecutor-general has launched an investigation into the incidents.
Updated: June 10, 2014 04:00 AM