On Wednesday, an Egyptian criminal court in Cairo sentenced nine men to lengthy prison terms, including life, for participating in the kind of mob sexual assaults that have become commonplace, particularly in the capital’s iconic Tahrir Square.
The verdicts were a rarity: Seldom are Egyptian men held accountable for rape in the country’s troubled criminal justice system, much less for the endemic episodes of sexual harassment that most Egyptian women reportedly experience in their lifetimes.
Understandably, victims and women’s rights advocates were pleased to have won a measure of recompense.
“It’s a good verdict, of course. I didn’t think we’d get our rights like this,” a 29-year-old mother of three who was attacked on June 8 told the independent news site Mada Masr.
“Of course, this has been very good news for the women. It has given them some peace of mind,” Mostafa Mohamed, a lawyer for the Nazra for Feminist Studies group, told the website.
But while some cautiously welcomed the verdicts, they and others also expressed concerns that the rulings were outliers, more for show than an indication of the kind of substantive change needed in Egypt’s police, judiciary and society at large to begin reducing the almost unparalleled scale of sexual violence in the country.
The nationally televised sentencing session came after a surge in sexual assaults that coincided with the inauguration of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the former defense minister who overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013. One vicious incident, which occurred the day of the inauguration, was captured by a bystander using his mobile phone and showed a woman — stripped and marked by welts — being pushed, pulled and groped through Tahrir Square by a crowd as others tried to usher her to safety.
In a rare display of high-level attention to the issue, Sisi afterward made a well-publicized visit to the woman’s hospital bed with a bouquet of flowers and apologized, saying the incident had shamed the nation.
“Our honor is being assaulted in the streets,” Sisi said. “This is unacceptable, and we can't allow one more incident like this to happen.”
He quickly formed a committee tasked with addressing sexual violence and instructed Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim to make the issue a priority. Seven men were arrested in connection with the incident, part of a group of 13 who were referred to trial under unusually speedy procedures.
“I can only hope the prosecution has exerted enough effort to hold the right people accountable, not just some kids for propaganda reasons to show that they are focusing on cases of violence against women,” Mariam Kirollos, a women’s rights advocate and organizer for Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, told Mada Masr.
In June, interim President Adly Mansour, a Supreme Constitutional Court judge chosen by Sisi to lead the country after Morsi’s ouster, approved a law drafted by the interim Cabinet that for the first time specifically defined and outlawed sexual harassment.
The law defines a harasser as anyone who "accosts others in a public or private place through following or stalking them, using gestures or words or through modern means of communication or in any other means through actions that carry sexual or pornographic hints."
It sets a minimum six-month jail term for the crime, with higher sentences of one year for those who chase victims, and three to five years if the offender holds a position of power over the person, such as a work supervisor. Sentences are doubled if the perpetrator is a repeat offender. (The men sentenced on Wednesday had been convicted of charges ranging from attempted rape to torture to attempted murder, not sexual harassment.)
But the law addresses only one aspect of violence against Egyptian women, and it sets onerous standards for proving harassment. Critics have noted that it requires victims to produce two witnesses and to bring harassers to the police station themselves in some circumstances, a feat that would be hard to imagine in Egypt, where few men are troubled by sexual harassment.
In 2013, a government study found that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women reported being harassed at some point in their lifetimes. Other troubling statistics point to women’s constrained rights and status in public life. According to a 2008 UNICEF study, 95.5 percent of women who have been married in Egypt have undergone female genital mutilation, though high-level government action against the process in the past decade has caused the number to decline among younger generations. According to government statistics, UNICEF has said, Egyptian women’s participation in the labor market is among the lowest in the world, while female unemployment rates have come close to tripling men’s.
Many Egyptian men, including members of the police force, either downplay or shrug off sexual harassment, reflecting popular views that women either should remain at home or bring trouble on themselves by dressing provocatively if they go out on the street.
“She can’t go anywhere without me,” Capt. Ahmed Mahmoud, a police officer in a working-class Cairo neighborhood, told the Huffington Post in May, speaking about his wife. “If a woman is wearing provocative clothing, the change needs to come from her.”
In April 2011, Sisi, then the head of military intelligence, publicly defended the army’s forced “virginity tests” on female protesters arrested in Tahrir Square. Sisi said the tests had been done both to protect the women from rape and to protect soldiers from accusations of rape.
Egypt’s sexual violence problem has also occasionally been used as a political cudgel in the country’s nationalistic, post-coup atmosphere. After images and testimonies from the assaults that accompanied Sisi’s inauguration became widespread, the National Council for Women tied the attacks to the Muslim Brotherhood, who have been labeled “terrorists” by Sisi and the government, and suggested suing Al Jazeera, which the council blamed for spreading the news.
Even with Egypt’s new law, history suggests that the road to eliminating sexual violence will be long. Well before Sisi’s inauguration, Tahrir Square and other public spaces had become dangerous cauldrons of sexual assault, much of this due, many believe, to the decline in policing that accompanied the fallout from the 2011 uprising. Between November 2012 and January 2014 — a period that predates the recent attacks — the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights documented 250 mob assaults.
As for the victims, they are left with bruised bodies, awful memories and the hope that they can continue to have a decent life, sometimes with children who witnessed the attacks. Hala, a 19-year-old student who spoke to Mada Masr, said she had been beaten so badly during the inauguration celebrations in Tahrir that she lost sight in her left eye. She called on Sisi to pay attention to her as he had to the woman in the hospital. A female police officer had brought a box of chocolates to her home, she said, “but what’s a box of chocolates going to do for my eye?”