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Solidarity and Division in Response to Egypt’s Endemic Sexual Violence

Two years after numerous statements by youth and women’s rights movements about the continuous incidents of violence and sexual harassment against women in large protests, especially in Tahrir, it took a video to convince the state that action was necessary to intervene. The video was horrific: spread via social media, it showed a woman stripped of her clothes, covered in blood, trying to escape from the middle of a group of young men who had completely torn off her clothes. A policemen tried to pull her out of Tahrir while Egypt’s new president Abdel Fattah El Sisi delivered his first speech after taking his oath that same morning. The visceral brutality of the incident caused incalculable embarrassment on one of the most important days for the Egyptian state since January 25, 2011.

Despite the fact that similar mass sexual attacks have occurred in number over the past years, this is perhaps the first time a video depicting their hideousness has spread in this way. The denouncements from human rights activists and civil society groups were, as usual, angry and sad. Meanwhile, the reaction from state supporters was to disclaim, deny, and project suspicions of the video. The very day after the video appeared however, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) issued a statement in celebration of the police officer who had “saved” the “girl of Tahrir.” The girl was then visited by a roses-bearing President Sisi, confirming for everyone that the event had actually occurred.

Contrary to popular belief, the video was not captured on the day of Sisi’s inauguration, June 8, 2014. The incident had actually occurred four days earlier, on the day the results of the presidential elections were announced. The following day (although unrelated to the incident in the video), then-Interim-President Adly Mansour issued amendments to the country’s sexual harassment law. The amendments and the video that circulated online days later started a wide social and rights debate, shedding light on the numerous problems facing Egyptian women, especially in terms of sexual harassment on the streets and the role played by the Egyptian state.

Mostafa Mahmoud, a lawyer at the Nazra for Feminist Studies organization, stated that “the law issued on June 5 has nothing to do with the video.” He added that “the law also has nothing to do with rape.”

What former president Mansour approved on June 5 was an amendment to article 306A of the penal code. The amendment increased the penalty for anyone who “approaches another person in a public, private, or familiar place with sexual or suggestive objects, suggestions, or insinuations, be it by allusion, word, or action in any way, including wired and wireless communication networks.” According to the amendments, article 306B defined sexual harassment as “it is considered sexual harassment if the crime stated in article 306 (A) of this law with the purpose of the criminal receiving benefit of a sexual nature from the victim. The criminal is punishable by no less than one year and a fine of no less than ten thousand pounds and no more than twenty thousand pounds or by one of these two penalties.”

Mahmoud explained that this is a “positive but incomplete amendment,” explaining that “while Egyptian law is mentioning the term ‘sexual harassment’ for the first time, previously a rights term unknown to the law, we find that it eventually includes the criminal’s intention to receive sexual benefit. How can we prove the criminal’s intentions?” He explains that the law should have only concerned itself with investigating whether the incident occurred or not, without attempting to determine the harasser’s intent. He also explained that the crime of harassment itself is very difficult to prove. “It’s already hard for the woman being harassed to prove the incident and find witnesses to corroborate her story. Going further by trying to make the victim prove the harasser’s intent is completely unrealistic.”

Mahmoud said that it is a good step to add the term “sexual harassment” to the Egyptian legislative vernacular, which had previously only known such terms as “offending modesty,” “sexual assault,” and “rape.” All of these, Mahmoud explained, are very different acts. He added that “there was a lot of confusion among people between the widespread video and the amendments to the law. What happened in the video is not considered sexual harassment. We use the laws addressing rape and sexual assault to protect the rights of the survivors of assaults such as the one caught in the video. These laws also need to be amended so the victims can receive their rights.” He explained that the definition of rape in Egyptian law is highly problematic, since the law only considers an act of rape if there is complete vaginal penetration. If, however, the rape includes anal penetration or penetration with an item other than the rapist’s penis, the incident is considered sexual assault and not rape.

In assault cases, the penalty is three to 15 years in a maximum security prison, depending on the judge’s assessment of the situation. As for rape, the penalty is life in prison, unless the victim is a minor (under 18) or if the rapist has a position of employment, familial, or educational authority over the victim, in which cases the penalty can reach execution.

On Saturday, June 14, 2014, there was a protest organized by a young Egyptian woman, Dena Elshabba, who is not affiliated with any political movement or party. The complicated issues facing the women’s rights movement in Egypt, however, drowned Dina.

At the beginning, all anti-rape and women’s rights movements announced their participation in the protest through its Facebook event. This was until the name of the National Council for Women was added as an organizer, at which point a number of withdrawals flooded in, objecting to what a number of activists said was “an attempt by the Council to improve its image by taking advantage of the wave of anger against the abuse of women’s rights.” A number of activists also objected to the protesters’ decision to apply for a permit from the Ministry of Interior to protest, especially after activist Alaa Abdel Fattah and others had been recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for violating the protest law. In light of these events, a number of activists saw the idea of applying for a permit to protest as a legitimization of the state imprisoning those who had protested against the law.

As for Elshabba, she explained that she was trying to avoid trouble with the security forces and was trying to remove the event from another context of political struggle. She added that she saw no problem with the National Council for Women or any other group or organization joining the protest as long as everyone agreed to refuse the abuse of women.

On the other hand, a number of activists joined the protest individually, in spite of their respective organizations having announced an official boycott. Eba’ al-Tamimi, who is a member of the Op Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH) movement, said that it was important to participate to distribute flyers and stickers expressing the opinions of the youth movements that have been engaging this issue for years, so as not to leave the field open for the state-led rhetoric adopted by the National Council for Women, to take over the protest and be spoon-fed to the participants.

As for the National Council for Women, it had been headed for many years by the wife of former president Hosni Mubarak, and its actions, according to many in the field of women’s rights, were far too meek for the level of violations against Egyptian women. In addition to this longstanding view, Magda Adli, manager of the Al-Nadeem Center for the Management and Rehabilitation of victims of violence, saw the Council’s reaction to the widespread video as “an extension of the state rhetoric.” The Council saw the incident as a Muslim-Brotherhood-led conspiracy to ruin the Egyptians’ joy and celebration with the inauguration of the new president.

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 6.27.08 AMSign reads: We won’t forget the MOI’s harassment – Source: Twitter

During the protest, which included dozens of people, two protesters were arrested for holding signs that read “We Won’t Forget the MoI’s Harassment,” referring to previous MoI violations against arrested protesters, particularly women, which in many cases could be categorized as sexual harassment. This led activist Salma al-Tarzy, a member of OpAntiSH, to criticize the protest organizers on their Facebook page:

“What’s the purpose of this protest exactly? Who were you addressing? Is it a protest against society? Is a harasser supposed to stop harassing when he sees this protest? Protests are a way to pressure the state to do its job. If the state was doing its job we wouldn’t have reached this point. We’ve been screaming for years that there were mass sexual assaults in Tahrir and the MoI still never secured the square. The video shows only one police officer saving the girl. Did you ever stop to wonder why the MoI didn’t send larger forces to secure the area even though we’ve been saying that this happens for years? This inaction by the MoI doesn’t bother you? Do you know what happens to those who are arrested in police stations? Do you know how the MoI tortures them? They push a stick up the arrested men’s behinds!”

The next day, Nazra for Feminist Studies, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Al-Nadeem Center for the Management and Rehabilitation of victims of violence, OpAntiSH, the HarassMap initiative, the Imprint Movement, the Tahrir Bodyguards, and the Ded Ta7arosh (anti-harassment) movement all held a press conference entitled “Sexual Violence and the State’s Stands in 10 Years,” during which Adli stated incidents of MoI women’s rights violations, especially during protests, from 2005 until the present day.

Adli also expressed her concern of the intentions of the MoI and other bodies of the Egyptian state toward harassment. She affirmed that, if their intentions truly are clear, the state must open up old cases and investigate incidents of harassment perpetrated by the state and by others instead of trying to deny them and arresting anyone who mentions them or criticizes the state’s actions. Adli also indicated that she was worried the harassment law would be used to arrest activists by having them accused of harassing others who support the state.

Elaborating on a specific instance, Adli mentioned an episode she had witnessed the previous week while participating in a protest for the release of political prisoners at the Journalists’ Syndicate, which coincided with a gathering of women chanting for Sisi in front of the Syndicate. After some light scuffles between both parties, some of the women accused two members of the April 6 Youth Movement of harassing them, which promptly led the police to arrest them.

“Our history with the MoI leads us to raise serious question marks about their sincerity. The MoI is exactly the same as it was under Mubarak and former Minister of Interior Habib al-Adly, and there has been no change in it. As long as we see no restructuring of the MoI, we cannot turn a new page.” Adli added, “How can we trust the state while they are now calling for the arrest of the man who published the video and while the minister of health is appearing in video footage with the victim? The matter is not to arrest the person who published the video for invading the victim’s privacy, because they have already publicly posted videos of the victim with state officials or else the minister of health should also be arrested. It is quite clear that the point is to take revenge from the young man who started all of this.”


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