With the rapid growth of social media over the last decade, the fight for freedom, justice, and equality all over the world has become more effective than ever. Meanwhile in Egypt, a different message echoed through the events unfolding in Tahrir Square – the plaza in downtown Cairo that symbolized its 2011 revolution: There is no place for women here.
As tens of thousands of people turned out to the square day after day, women were met with the most disturbing experiences such as regular touching, groping, and pushing around. At some point during the demonstrations, groups of men stripped a handful of women naked or down to their underwear, beat and raped them, then left them out helplessly on the streets. Most sickening of all, women who had the courage needed to report the assault were questioned, disregarded, and simply told to avoid the protests. The result of a patriarchal culture enforced for many years.
Although the ruthless assaults that took place in the square do not represent the country’s everyday reality, the affliction that has slowly but surely became an unavoidable part of the female experience looks something like this: A man brushes against a woman’s body with his crotch as he squeezes by her in a crowded place; a man touches himself inappropriately on a cramped bus as he ogles a fully veiled mother clutching her baby; an underaged boy catcalls a girl or even a woman as she walks past him on the street. In 2013, a United Nations study found that 99% of female respondents had been subjected to one form or another of harassment in Egypt, while another poll by Thomson Reuters Foundation from 2017 found the capital to be the most dangerous megacity for women in the world. This shows exactly how pervasive these behaviours are. They seep from public places into educational institutions, homes, workplaces, and any place imaginable – making it loud and clear that no woman in Egypt is safe.
The series of horrific mob sexual attacks against female protesters later led to a law criminalising harassment, giving women and girls the right to file reports. However, many still claimed that the police is often reluctant to cooperate, and that in general society there remains a huge stigma that follows victims of sexual assault.
The Current Fight Against Sexual Harassment
For the past few weeks, Egypt has been swept up into the greatest, most unyielding women’s revolution in the history of the country – a revolution so fierce it is showing no intention of losing momentum. Never before has the world seen such a huge number of Egyptian women and girls speaking up so unabashedly; so unashamedly against sexual predators. Some would call it the Egyptian #MeToo movement, but what happened was far more organic than simple imitation.
On July 1, a digital movement was launched, where over 100 Egyptian women and underage girls had allegedly been harassed, assaulted and raped by the same man, Ahmed Bassam Zaki. He is an affluent college student that comes from a privileged background, and a well-connected family that in Egypt is more than capable of making just about anything go away. Allegations against Zaki stretch back at least three years. The stories that circulated suggested a disturbing pattern of manipulation which start with pressuring girls to meet up with him, send him personal pictures, and get involved in sexual acts. This then progressed to stalking, bullying, humiliating and threatening to expose them to their families and communities when they try to end things.
Soon after this case came to light, equally horrifying incidents involving other men surfaced online, especially on Instagram where multiple accounts were created with the aim of receiving and publishing testimonials from survivors. In particular, one heinous crime dating back to 2014 at the five-star Fairmont Nile City hotel further fuelled the country’s reckoning with systemic harassment: A group of four to seven men taking turns raping a young unconscious woman before signing their initials on her body – all while capturing the animalistic events on tape. The now leaked visuals were not only used as the expected threatening tool ensuring the victim’s silence all these years, but they were also widely shared among a group of friends and acquaintances who were fully aware of their handful other similar crimes.
One of the most essential resources during this movement was the Instagram account @AssaultPolice, which has now been shut down by the anonymous administrator who has received threats of legal action, kidnapping and death by the same group of men. The account served as a vital element in sharing testimonies, building up sexual assault cases, and educating people on the subject.
The Long-Awaited Revolution
Within days, Zaki was expelled from the EU Business School in Barcelona, which soon after urged Spanish authorities to start an investigation. The region’s trending case has also led to two major amendments in the country’s law providing increased protection for the victims of sexual violence; one protects their identity and the other allows them to file a report without the involvement of a guardian and with a lawyer present – should they choose. On July 4—just three days after the flood of accusations—Zaki was arrested from his home in a gated community outside Cairo and charged with harassing multiple women and minors.
In addition, the Egyptian Public Prosecution office has announced its launch of an investigation into the alleged sexual assault known publicly as the ‘Fairmont Crime’, just a week after the victim came forward.
The quick and public response on behalf of Egyptian authorities represents a fundamental cultural shift, making it clear that even in conservative Egypt the volume, nature, and seriousness of the complaints were hard to ignore. Moreover, a great number of TV presenters, celebrities, and public figures rushed to express their encouragement, urging all Egyptians to come together and change the ideas in society that breed this disturbing behaviour. This particularly supportive stance by Egypt’s most prominent figures was the most significant in a country where the media is tightly controlled and heavily censored.
In a rare public statement, the nation’s Al-Azhar establishment, the Sunni Muslim world’s authority and centre for Islamic education, also had something to say following the arrest of Ahmed Bassam Zaki who respresents a symbol for what the country has been dealing with for many years. Al-Azhar discouraged turning a blind eye to these crimes that threaten the security of every individual in society. It went on to claim that women’s clothing, whatever it may be, is never an excuse for attacking her privacy, freedom and dignity – challenging the dominant belief of victim blaming.
Crossing the Class Barrier
While instances of sexual harassment and violence have been experienced by women of diverse backgrounds in the country, the ones at the heart of the conversations denouncing this violence come from privileged families and backgrounds. In these cases, authorities were quick and efficient in arresting and holding the abusers accountable.
But then there is the case of Menna Abdel Aziz, a woman who had been beaten up, raped, and photographed by her perpetrator while visiting his home. Egyptian authorities arrested her, and she was charged with incitement and debauchery. Such an incident casts the spotlight upon justice that often hinges on women’s social class; where sympathy, support and encouragement are never extended towards those who come from poorer backgrounds.
While this incident stresses the importance of a more inclusive movement in which class and regional barriers are broken, this narrative has never sounded brighter before. The past few weeks have shown real change in power dynamics in Egypt’s society where: Abusers are being detained and held accountable, women are becoming more aware of their rights, and more men are giving up the privileges society awards them and joining a campaign against something that threatens all individuals.
A struggle against injustice is never won quickly and decisively. A struggle against patriarchy that has protected and enabled monsters who are violent towards women – one which finally sets all women free – is never won without men owning their responsibility in the problem.