New leader Sisi orders action to tackle sex attacks on women in Egypt

Rights advocates welcome Egyptian leader's gesture, but says it does not go far enough

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 June, 2014, 10:47pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 June, 2014, 12:15pm


Spurred by a video said to show a sex assault on a woman by a mob in Tahrir Square, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has pledged to take "all necessary measures" to combat attacks.

He has ordered vigorous enforcement of a new law that for the first time criminalises sexual harassment.

Rights advocates welcomed Tuesday's gesture, but said the new measures did not go far enough. The failure of successive governments to take the issue seriously has pushed sexual violence to endemic levels in Egypt, they said.

Advocacy groups and the prosecutor's office reported a series of mob assaults had taken place in the square in recent days as Sisi backers hailed his victory in last month's presidential election. The attack that was captured on video occurred on Sunday night as crowds gathered in the square to celebrate the new president's inauguration.

Egypt's prosecutor general released details of an assault on a mother and her teenage daughter without specifying whether the attack was the same one depicted in the video, although the sequence of events appeared to match.

The statement said the two were surrounded by a mob and the mother was violently stripped of her clothing, then seriously burned when the scuffle overturned a tea vendor's pot of scalding water.

The president's office remained silent on Monday as shaky footage of a bloodied, naked woman, encircled by a crowd of men, rocketed across social media sites and prompted an explosion of commentary on Twitter and Facebook.

Compounding the outrage, another clip showed a television anchorwoman laughing and referring to the crowds "having fun" just after a reporter at the scene described instances of sexual harassment taking place in the square. The anchorwoman later said her comment was not in response to the report of women being targeted.

Victims of such attacks in Egypt often find themselves pilloried, rather than their assailants being considered in the wrong.

In another widely reported case in March, a woman who was set upon by men on Cairo University's campus was criticised by the university chief for her allegedly provocative attire.

Sisi's statement, relayed by a presidential spokesman, described sexual harassment as "alien" to Egyptian culture, but rights advocates said it has become deeply ingrained.

"It's about the way women are viewed, and their role in society," said Rothna Begum, a women's rights researcher in the Middle East and North Africa for Human Rights Watch. She cited a "climate of impunity" surrounding such attacks.

Tahrir Square and other venues for large political rallies have become extremely unsafe for women in recent years. Human rights groups reported nearly 100 sexual assaults in the square in a four-day span last summer, as crowds were demanding the removal of Islamist president Mohammed Mursi.

The new law, promulgated days before Sisi took office, provides for jail terms of up to five years for convicted harassers.

The prosecutor's office said three of seven men arrested in connection with attacks in the square would be put on trial, and that the investigation into the others' role was continuing.