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Sexual violence: will the noise die down?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 06 - 2014

The chilling video of a mob sexually assaulting a woman in Tahrir Square on Sunday overshadowed the carefully choreographed inauguration of Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as president. The harrowing images from the two-minute film quickly replaced the lavish day-long celebrations marking the beginning of Al-Sisi's presidency in newspaper headlines and on television talk shows.
The shaky recording from within the moving mob shows scurrying men, police in white uniforms and a woman, naked save for the remnants of a black top around her shoulders. Against a backdrop of gunshots and indiscernible shouts the camera tracks the victim as policemen attempt, with difficulty, to extricate her from the mob and get her to a nearby ambulance. The mob won't quit, and nor does the trailing camera which shows the woman's bruised body, her faltering legs and her final fall at the feet of the policemen struggling to save her.
According to the Interior Ministry the video shows one of at least seven cases of mass sexual assaults that occurred in Tahrir during the days-long celebrations that marked Al-Sisi's election victory. The ministry announced at least a dozen men — aged between 15 and 49 — have been arrested in connection with the assaults. Details of how many are involved in each individual incident are unclear.
The video may be the first of its kind but systematic sexual assaults and rape in Tahrir Square and its vicinity is a problem rights groups have been speaking out against since 2011. Testimonies of female victims — aged anything between their 20s and 70s — have been documented by several organisations. Dozens of complaints have been filed with the public prosecutor, to no avail.
Rights groups say sexual harassment and assaults are difficult to document because most victims do not report them to avoid stigmatisation or because they're unfamiliar with support centres that are willing to assist them on the legal front. Two rights centres — Al-Nadim and Nazra for Feminist Studies— have documented 500 cases since 2011. The anti-sexual harassment group Shoft Taharosh has documented 250.
“This is a total of at least 750. If one out of ten women [as per UN figures] is subject to sexual harassment or assault in Egypt then it is no small issue,” says Magda Ali, Director of Al-Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.
A statement issued by Al-Sisi's office on Tuesday described the case of the woman in the video as one of “sexual harassment” that is “alien” to Egyptian culture. He followed this by a visit to the hospital where the woman is being treated where he offered his apologies and gave her a bouquet of red roses. A presidential spokesman said on Wednesday that El-Sisi instructed prime minister Ibrahim Mehleb to form a ministerial committee to devise a strategy to combat the epidemic.
It is the first time the issue has been addressed by any Egyptian president.
The assaults occurred less than three days after outgoing interim president Adli Mansour amended the law to include tougher penalties — up to one year in jail and fines of up to LE 20,000 ($ 2,800) — for sexual harassment. The law now includes, for the first time, a definition of harassment.
But activists who have been engaged in efforts to rescue women from assaults, especially in Tahrir Square, say the amendments fall short of addressing the problem.
“The law is about sexual harassment but what has been happening for years now is not harassment but sexual assault and rape. How can this law deal with things that don't fall within its mandate?” asks Salma Al-Tarzi, a film director and volunteer with Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, a volunteer group formed in 2012.
According to Al-Tarzi, sexual assaults peaked during the massive 30 June protests against Mohamed Morsi. “We interfered in at least 167 cases over two days in Tahrir Square alone. How many more were there that weren't reported or we didn't know about?” she says.
The penal code's definition of rape is restricted to penile-vaginal penetration and dates from 1937. Al-Nadim's Ali says repeated efforts by women's rights groups to persuade the Ministry of Justice to amend the definition have been rejected.
Sexual assaults documented by Al-Nadim include cases where metal blades cut through the victim's vagina to her backside. At least two women required major surgery following what Ali describes as “sexual torture”.
Sexual violence during protests in Tahrir Square date back to 11 February, 2011, the day Hosni Mubarak stepped down following 18 days of nation-wide protests. Lara Logan, a reporter with the US television network CBS, was assaulted by a mob of 200 to 300 men that evening. “There was no doubt in my mind that I was in the process of dying,” Logan said of the attack in an interview with CBS in May 2011, “a torturous death that's going to go on forever.”
Few Egyptian women go public about being sexually assaulted at political protests but the testimonies of those that do indicate a pattern to the attacks, a strategy by the mob. First a small group of men surrounds the woman, claiming to protect her from harassment. They are quickly joined by dozens more who form a circle that makes it difficult for those outside to see what is happening. In a few seconds tens — sometimes hundreds — of men tear off the victim's clothes as they rape her with their hands. Most women are beaten in the process.
Journalist and activist Hania Moheeb, who survived a mass assault in January 2013, told a TV talk show that it was a “near death experience” and was so organised “they must have rehearsed it before”.
Details of this week's assaults, according to the testimony of a police officer -Mustafa Thabet- who rescued the woman, suggest the pattern remains. The difference this time was that the police force intervened, albeit more than an hour after the assault began and, says Thabet, only after he proposed saving the victim alone. The arrests are also a new development.
A march against sexual violence is scheduled on June 14 at 5:00 pm from the Cairo Opera House. The problem is being debated widely and going mainstream. At least for now.
“I'm worried that the noise will die down in a few days and nothing will change. It's happened before,” says Ali, “Also, can we expect the same authorities that violate human rights to protect women's rights?”
In 2005 the Mubarak regime sent thugs to sexually assault women protesting against him in front of the Press Syndicate in Downtown Cairo. In the years that followed mass sexual harassment of women in central Cairo by young men became an annual occurrence during Eid celebrations.
The issue is already victim of political appropriation. Government apologists and pro-military voices in the media quickly accused the Muslim Brotherhood of masterminding the attacks while the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party website described Al-Sisi's supporters in Tahrir Square as “naked dancers” and blamed the assault on the “moral decadence” of “the [July] coup supporters”.
“Seeking to score political points from incidents of sexual assault hasn't stopped since 2011,” says Al-Tarzi. “The reality, though, is that the assaults in Tahrir Square are evidence of the state's failure to protect citizens because they're only trained to repress them. WIthout refoming the security sector little will change.”

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