Al Jazeera: Egypt’s sexual assault epidemic

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Women at Egypt’s protests often must fight more than the political cause that brought them into the streets.

 It is the night of July 3, and on the streets of downtown Cairo thousands are celebrating the ousting of Egypt’s deposed president, Mohamed Morsi. But below ground, in the police booth of Tahrir Square’s metro station, Joanna Joseph is attempting to comfort a young girl.

She had been surrounded by dozens of men in the square, stripped and sexually assaulted. And now, on the request of her family, a medic is trying to conduct a virginity test on the floor of the police booth.

“I was shouting at the doctor not to touch the girl. The girl couldn’t even cope with hearing the crowds,” says Joseph, who is a volunteer with the Anti-Sexual Harassment Campaign (OpAntiSh), a grassroots organisation set up in November 2012, which sends teams of volunteers to protests to intervene in mob assaults. “The policeman said he had received four or five girls in this state every day,” she adds.

Since the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, then the Egyptian president, attacks like these have become an epidemic in Tahrir Square, the site of many of the protests. And in the week surrounding the ousting of Morsi, 150 such cases were reported. Many others, of course, go unreported. The level of violence involved is often extreme – in January, two teenage girls were raped with knives.

Thirty-year-old musician Yasmine el-Baramawy, who was attacked in Tahrir Square last November, describes the pattern: Men surround the woman, rip off her clothes and then perform manual rape, while an outer circle fends off anyone who might try to help her with sticks, blades and belts.

“They were taking photos of me and laughing,” Baramawy says. “They pinned me naked to the hood of a car and drove me around.”

Vocalising sexual harassment in Egypt

Deep roots

The speed, efficiency and ferocity of the attacks imply that they are orchestrated, and many believe they are used by political factions as a tool to deter women from protesting while simultaneously discrediting demonstrators. But the fact that the assaults occurred under Mubarak, the military, Morsi and the current interim president, Adly Mansour, suggest the problem may have far deeper roots.

And while the attacks are most prevalent and brutal in Tahrir, they also occur outside of a political context: In May, rights groups reported similar assaults at a pop concert in the coastal city of Ain Sokhna.

“The problem of sexual harassment and assault has been evident for a very long time,” says Amal Elmohandes, the director of the Women Human Rights Defenders programme. “They took place as far back as 2006 during Eid celebrations, at the metro stations or near the cinemas.”

In fact, a study by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women released in April reported that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, while 96.5 percent have been subject to harassment in the form of touching.

But activists say the number of sexual assaults has increased post-revolution as there has been a surge in the number of women present in public spaces. Furthermore, Elmohandes says, “as society is more brutalised, people are increasingly expressing themselves through violent actions”.

‘Blaming the victim’

Increased opportunity and a traumatised population, however, does not fully explain the extent of the problem in Egypt. And the language used to describe the assaults reveals just how deeply embedded the problem is.

The word “taharush”, which means “harassment”, was only adopted in the context of sexual assault in the last decade. “Instead, people used to say ‘flirtation’ [‘mo’aksa’] – they sugar-coated the problem,” explains Mariam Kirollos, a women’s rights activist and volunteer with OpAntiSh.

The use of the term “flirtation” rather than harassment implies a consensual act, and contributes to an already entrenched culture of “blaming the victim”, as women are perceived to be somehow complicit.

Consequently, answering back is widely considered inappropriate in Egypt – and can, in some instances, provoke a violent reaction. When, in 2012, 16-year-old Eman Mostafa spat at the man who groped her breasts, her attacker shot her dead.

The roots of the problem, women’s rights activists say, are in the home. And with domestic violence and marital rape not considered crimes under Egyptian law, it is hard to change attitudes on the street.

Women’s rights groups had worked on legislation to criminalise domestic abuse, but this was shelved when Mubarak’s parliament was dissolved post-revolution. Since then there have been two further attempts. El-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, an Egyptian NGO that offers legal and psychological support to victims of assault, drafted a law addressing domestic violence, marital rape and sexual violence against women. But the effort was abandoned when the parliament was again dissolved by the then-ruling military council last year.

Similar umbrella legislation put forward by the state-run National Council for Women this year was also put on hold when the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of parliament, was dismantled after Morsi was ousted. “Egypt is never stable enough for us to introduce these draft laws,” explains Farah Shash, a psychologist and researcher at El-Nadeem Centre.

As it stands, under Egyptian law sexual harassment is not criminialised, and rape by objects or hands is only classified as assault.

Shash says young boys are rarely reprimanded by their parents for harassing girls in public, and that it is not uncommon to see children speaking inappropriately to women as they mirror the adult behaviour around them. “Often, families will just laugh,” she says.

The issue is not addressed in schools either, where the curriculum reinforces traditional gender roles. “You’ll see textbook examples of girls helping their mother in the kitchen, while the boys are with their fathers at work. It sets this idea in kids’ minds that women are meant to be at home [and] men on the streets,” Shash says.

Talk to Al Jazeera – Ragia Omran : Abused in Egypt

These attitudes contribute to a sense that men have power over women, who in turn become commodities, activists say. “Women are dehumanised, their bodies can be tampered with,” explains Elmohandes.

A culture of impunity

There is also a culture of impunity at the state level, with assailants rarely facing any consequences for their actions.Baramawy filed a joint complaint with six other women about their sexual assaults in Tahrir before the Qasr el-Nil prosecution in March. Prosecutors were reportedly cooperative but they had no evidence: they kept asking women to identify their attackers, an impossible request with such large mobs.

And, according to Heba Morayef, the Egypt director of Human Rights Watch, the security forces compound the problem. “Both the police and the military have been involved in sexual violence against women. They get away with it, so there has been no accountability,” she says, noting that the military conducted forced virginity tests on female demonstrators in March 2011. Elmohandes says it has become socially unacceptable for a woman to even enter a police station because of the fear of being sexually harassed.

Successive governments have failed to prioritise fighting sexual violence against women. “The problem is always postponed until the political situation ‘settles down’,” notes Morayef.

In February, on the one occasion that sexual assault was addressed by the human rights committee of the Shura Council, members of the council blamed women for the attacks in Tahrir, suggesting that they should not attend protests. One committee member from a Salafist party, Adel Afifi, even declared: “The woman has 100 percent responsibility.”

For the sake of women and the sake of this country, this violence cannot continue.– Enjy Ghozlan, Anti-Sexual Harrassment Campaign spokesperson

Activists are pushing for streetlights to be placed in locations like Tahrir and are requesting that dedicated security forces units be set up to tackle the problem. But these are just partial steps. “This is not something that can be addressed from a piecemeal approach. It has to be a comprehensive strategy on behalf of the government,” Morayef says.

In the meantime, volunteers in grassroots campaigns are left to plug the gaps. The male and female volunteers at OpAntiSh not only attempt to rescue women from sexual assaults, they also run hotlines and document cases. Societal awareness campaign Harassmap tracks sexual harassment across Egypt using an online interactive map. Meanwhile, Kirollos says, a coalition of rights groups are working on drawing up key articles focusing on the protection of women for the country’s new constitution.

Although Tahrir has become a no-go area for some women, and protesters now cordon off those who do attend into gender-segregated pens, many survivors are joining movements to combat the violence. But they fear that without effective state institutions as Egypt again finds itself in political limbo, the issue will continue to be ignored – with devastating consequences for the country’s women.

“It is becoming more violent and increasing in number,” says OpAntiSh spokesperson Enjy Ghozlan. “For the sake of women and the sake of this country, this violence cannot continue.”

The Times: Our protest will last until death, vow supporters of ousted leader in Egypt

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A bitterly divided Egypt was bracing for further bloodshed last night after supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, pledged to give up their lives rather than disband the protest camp in Cairo where dozens were shot dead in clashes with security forces at the weekend.

Egypt’s Interior Minister vowed to clear the month-long sit-in outside a mosque by members of Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, warning them to “come to their senses” and go home.

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The Sunday Times: When the army snapped

The Sunday TimesAfter a month’s peaceful protest by Morsi supporters, Egypt’s military finally lost patience, and at least 65 lost their lives

IT was in the early hours of yesterday morning that the first victims, blood streaming from their faces and bodies, began to be carried into the makeshift hospital near the Rabaa al-Adawia mosque in the eastern outskirts of Cairo.

For weeks Egypt’s military rulers had tolerated a sit-in by supporters of Mohamed Morsi, the elected president whom they ousted on July 3.

Now, as demonstrators from his Muslim Brotherhood party began to move out into surrounding roads, blocking traffic and pitching their tents, the army’s patience began to run out — with deadly consequences. “At about 2am the injured started coming in,” said Yehia Mekkeyah, 36, who lectures in renal science at Egypt’s Ain Shams University, but was helping out at the hospital.

“First they were suffering from suffocation due to tear gas and birdshot pellets but the live ammunition started around 4am…”

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Our protest will last until death, vow supporters of ousted leader in Egypt

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A bitterly divided Egypt was bracing for further bloodshed last night after supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, pledged to give up their lives rather than disband the protest camp in Cairo where dozens were shot dead in clashes with security forces at the weekend.

Egypt’s Interior Minister vowed to clear the month-long sit-in outside a mosque by members of Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, warning them to “come to their senses” and go home. But Brotherhood leaders said that the thousands of demonstrators, including women and children, were ready to die before giving up their calls for Mr Morsi’s reinstatement.

Gehad El-Haddad, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, said Mr Morsi’s supporters had grown more determined after the deaths of at least 72 demonstrators in clashes in the early hours of Saturday. “There are feelings of agony and anger, but also a very strong feeling of determination,” he said. “For us, if we die, we meet our creator and we did so for a just cause. Either we die or we succeed.”

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Food, fuel and faith divide Cairo’s streets

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While the president and army appear locked in conflict, the streets are divided between the extraordinary groundswell of dissent against the president and those loyalists staging their own sit-ins and demos.

“If the price for legitimacy is my blood, then I am prepared to sacrifice my blood to legitimacy and my homeland,” said Egypt’s President Morsi in a defiant television speech around midnight on 2 July. A day earlier, the army had given him an ultimatum: to “fulfill the demands of the people” or it will intervene. In other words, step down, or we will remove you.

Morsi’s speech rejected the army’s road map, derided the millions of protesters against him as remnants of the former regime and repeatedly declared his “constitutional legitimacy”, won at the ballot box just over a year ago.

The protests, largely spearheaded by a grass roots campaign called Tamarod (Rebel), which had collected 22 million signatures calling for his resignation. The group demands early presidential elections and a new constitution as well as an interim president and ruling technocratic council.

While the president and army appear locked in conflict, the streets are divided between the extraordinary groundswell of dissent against the president and those loyalists staging their own sit-ins and demos. As tensions rise, deadly clashes between rival protest groups have erupted across the country leaving dozens dead.

We are seeing two different visions of Egypt: Morsi and his largely Islamist supporters say he has legitimacy as the democratically elected president. But Egyptians in the street maintain that democracy is bigger than the ballot box: the president is unfit to rule, the people have spoken.

“I voted for that guy, so I’m here to defend my voice, he won the election the people made their choice. . . If some don’t like it, go the polling stations at the end of his term,” says Hamza Abu-Seer, 57, selling Morsi hats in the ongoing Islamist sit-in defending the president outside a Cairo mosque.

Democracy is a contractual agreement between people and an elected leader, maintains Gehad El-Haddad, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) which are spear-heading the pro-Morsi protests, “and that contract was for four years.”

He sees their struggles as means to defend “the right of the people to choose the leader of their country”.

“We will not be jeopardised by anyone, even those with guns.”

A flagbearer in Tahrir Square.
Photograph: Bel Trew

However, those calling for the president’s ousting say he broke that trust with a series of unpopular and undemocratic decisions.

“This is part of democracy, people have the right to come to the streets and demand this, he breached the contract, especially with the constitutional declaration,” says Mohamed Waked, an editior of Middle East-focused e-zine Jadaliyya, referring to a controversial move by the president in November last year to immunise his decrees and the Constituent Assembly from judicial review..

Waked sees this as a “turning point” for the beleaguered leader, who had won support after prying power from the military.

Morsi then pushed through a hastily-written constitution that many slammed as being drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly.

“Added to this was his and his party’s incompetence, ineffectiveness at governing – they couldn’t even run the country,” Waked adds. Egypt’s economy is in freefall: the pound is down about 20 per cent since the president took office, and foreign reserves continue to shrink. The knockdown effect on Egyptians is chronic fuel, water and bread shortages and crippling unemployment.

Economy aside, there have been concerns about freedoms as the number of people charged with insulting the president, which include journalists, bloggers and TV commentators, is higher than under Hosni Mubarak.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea that lousy presidents who perform poorly are impeached. Egypt would be a garbage bin in four years if he stays,” concludes Waked.

Photograph: Bel Trew

Back at the pro-Morsi encampment, defenders of the president maintain a year is not long enough to fix Egypt. The president, they say, has wrestled power from the military, who took over for a year after Mubarak’s ouster; ratified a fair constitution; and expanded media freedom.

Leading member of the Brotherhood Mohamed El-Beltagy riled up supporters on the sit in main stage calling on them to “say goodbye to their wives and children” and get ready for martyrdom.

The chants in the loyalist demonstrations often reference Islam as source of legitimacy: this is question of identity as much as political affiliation. Like the president said in his speech, their vision of Egypt must be defended to the death.

The Islamist current also assert that they are still the majority: “Everyone knows the Islamic stream in Egypt across repetitive elections represents 70 per cent of the population,” asserts Haddad. “We’re the biggest, most organised stream of Egyptians inside Egypt.”

This again is refuted by anti-Morsi protesters.

“We are witnessing the demise of political Islam,” Waked maintains. “It meant oppression, horrible economic conditions, it set social segments against each other, demonising the Shia and the Christians. People are fed up with this.”

The president is backed by some Islamist groups like Gamaa Al-Islamiya, a once banned terrorist organisation, and the Wasat (“Centre”) Party, originally formed in the Nineties as a splinter group of the Brotherhood.

However, the united front appeared to crack Wednesday when leading member of Gamaa Al-Islamiya Tarek El-Zomor told Reuters that his organisation was now calling for early presidential elections.

The embarrassing comment was quickly denied by the group –  El-Zomor is not a spokesperson – but the damage had already been done.

Added to this the conservative Salafist Nour Party, the Brotherhood’s main political rivals and the second biggest party in the country – called on Monday for snap elections and a technocratic government.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has only their supporters, and they’re staying behind him, but outside the core he’s weakened,” maintains Khaled Fahmy, a historian and activist. “His power base is shrinking.”

Fahmy adds that the president’s speeches and actions appear to be only speaking to his support-base.

Certainly a number of unpopular government reshuffles over the last year have sparked these fears including the latest appointment of governorate heads last month. This saw tourism-hotspot Luxor given to a leading member of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, the very organization responsible for the infamous 1997 shooting spree which killed at least 58 foreign tourists.

A flag is waved during the presidential palace demonstrations.
Photograph: Bel Trew

The president left little room for manoeuvre with the opposition parties in his Tuesday speech. He did, however, call for dialogue.

Dr Diaa Adha, another leading member of the FJP, says the opposition over the last year repeatedly ignored offers of positions in government and his administration and have not met the president halfway. “They refused all kinds of democracy,” he said.

However, the country’s leading coalition of opposition forces the National Salvation Front (NSF), refute this. “We’ve had no communication from the other side [the Brotherhood] since December,” maintains Mohamed Aboul-Ghar, senior member of the NSF.

Morsi asserted in his speech on Tuesday that his “will is the will of the people” however he is losing support from within his own administration. In the last two days, six ministers have resigned together with two presidential spokespersons, rumours abound that more are jumping ship.

Meanwhile members of the military, who vowed to stay out of politics, released a statement on an unofficial Facebook page after his speech saying they will die protecting the Egyptian people from “terrorists, radicals and fools,” leading many to wonder whether this was a warning shot at the president.

Back in the rival protest camps, it is telling that that each side compares the other to the former regime, claiming that they represent the real Egypt.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is like Mubarak’s National Democratic Party,” says Ismail from the Nile Delta’s Zagazig, Morsi’s hometown. Ismail believes the Islamist group are slowly taking over and suffocating the country. At the anti-government rallies, organizers told all parties and movements to leave their own banners at home. A clever move: the result is a sea of Egyptian flags, a united nationalistic front.

Meanwhile at the Islamist sit-in, civil aviation engineer Farid Ismail, 43, says protesters are following the agenda of the former regime: “The opposition the minority in our country they want to act like thugs.”

The military are in emergency talks, the presidency remains steadfast and the anti-government protesters vow they will not stop their daily demonstrations.

“We will never respect the president. He has split the nation,” says Eman El-Mahdy from the Rebel campaign. “The Egyptian will is very strong. We won’t be silenced.”