#MeToo and Beyond: Combatting Gendered Violence in Egypt

 /  Feb. 16, 2021, 4:08 p.m.

womens day
International Women's Day; Cairo, 2011.

When Nadeen Ashraf created the Instagram account @assaultpolice on July 1, 2020, she sought to expose a former American University in Cairo student, Ahmed Bassam Zaki, for physical harassment and online blackmail of her friends using private information and pictures they had previously shared with him. 

The next morning, Ashraf, a student at the American University in Cairo herself, awoke to a feed full of dozens of women coming forward with similar blackmail, harassment, and assault allegations against Zaki. Their stories captured a breadth of experiences: one victim testified online that Zaki attempted to blackmail her with pictures she had shared with him four years prior, when she was thirteen and he was eighteen. His neighbor reported that Zaki had stalked her while another victim reported that he sexually coerced her when she was in sixth grade and he was in high school. 

Three days and thousands of shares after Ashraf’s initial post in July, the Egyptian police arrested Zaki after he confessed to blackmailing six women with pictures they had shared with him previously on social media. Zaki was sentenced to three years in prison for sexual misconduct, and still awaits trial for statutory rape. 

Sparking the fire of Egypt’s #MeToo Movement 

Though Ashraf created @assaultpolice as a targeted platform to expose Zaki’s predatory behavior, her account has sparked a national movement that far transcends Zaki. Ashraf’s allegations have spurred thousands of survivors to send their stories to @assaultpolice to be featured on the page.

One illustrative example of @assaultpolice’s power to amplify survivors of assault were the revelations of the so-called “Fairmont Incident”: shortly after the first wave of allegations against Zaki, @assaultpolice featured testimony of a survivor of an alleged 2014 gang rape in a prominent five-star Cairo hotel which implicated six men from Egypt’s wealthiest, most powerful families. The survivor, an Egyptian woman, was at an after-party for a party that was hosted at the Fairmont Hotel when the perpetrators slipped GHB, a common date rape drug, into her drink. 

Though all six men fled the country after @assaultpolice published the testimony, Interpol and the Lebanese authorities managed to arrest three of the six alleged perpetrators in Lebanon and sent them back to Cairo to await trial. The Egyptian authorities had also detained several key witnesses in the incident pending investigation for four months until they were released in late January 2021. 

Tangible Reforms 

Egypt’s #MeToo surge has garnered much support from the country’s officials. The National Council for Women, a governing body dedicated to women’s issues, publicly encouraged Zaki’s victims to submit formal complaints just days after @assaultpolice’s inception. Perhaps the most consequential and unprecedented response came from Al-Azhar, Egypt’s premier religious institution and a hub for theological scholarship, which issued a statement staunchly defending victims of gender-based violence on the grounds that “Silence or turning a blind eye to these crimes threatens the security of society and encourages violations.” Given the institution’s far-reaching influence on the judiciary process and its strong influence on the opinions of Egyptians of all socioeconomic backgrounds, Al-Azhar’s support for the #MeToo Movement promises to transform narratives surrounding gender-based violence in Egypt. 

Such public support from Egypt’s political and cultural leaders has accompanied legal redress as well, and the summer saw @assaultpolice stories fly from Instagram captions to law. The National Council for Women, in conjunction with the Egyptian parliament, passed a law in August 2020—only a month after @assaultpolice’s genesis—giving victims of sexual assault automatic anonymity when reporting an incident to law enforcement. 

Lingering Challenges 

The Egyptian Constitution of 2014 contained clauses stressing the government's duty to secure “the protection of women against all forms of violence.” However, this summer’s momentum against gendered violence is barely reflected in Egypt’s legal system, where anti-rape laws do not acknowledge male victims; there exist no provisions against marital rape; and “rape” itself is narrowly defined, leaving victims of sexual assault with limited channels for legal redress. Though months out from its summer of national reckoning, Egypt’s laws remain devoid of robust safeguards for women and victims of gender-based violence.

Additionally, despite @assaultpolice’s impact, victims of sexual violence in Egypt face unique societal challenges to obtaining justice. Among them is the prevalence of victim-blaming among lawmakers and other public figures in Egypt’s political realm. Under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, for example, legislators and public preachers held Hania Moheeb, a journalist, responsible for her assault at a demonstration, criticizing her for “going there to get r****”. The current regime has been slightly more proactive in addressing sexual harassment broadly, with President Abdelfattah el-Sisi calling for a “comprehensive national strategy” to address the pervasive issue. This national strategy included a new law that states that those found guilty of harassment may face up to five years in prison or a fine of fifty thousand Egyptian Pounds, approximately $3,200. 

Another challenge lies in the deep-rooted nature of gender-based violence and sexual harassment in all aspects of Egyptian society. According to a UN Women study, 99.3 percent of female respondents in Egypt said they had experienced one or more forms of harassment, defined in the study as unwanted physical contact, stalking, repeated unwanted sexual advances, and/or verbal abuse. 

Other forms of gender-based violence are still common in Egypt’s rural communities, where nine in every ten Egyptian women aged 15–49 are victims of female genital mutilation (FGM). These figures owe themselves in part to a widespread belief that FGM protects a woman’s chastity until marriage, with many proponents of FGM citing Islamic and Coptic Christian prohibitions on premarital sex to sanctify the procedure. Although the practice was criminalized in 2016, and the Grand Mufti—Egypt’s presiding legal authority—has denounced FGM unequivocally, FGM persists: the National Population Council reports that, as of 2019, 82 percent of girls under the age of seventeen had undergone the procedure.

Language divides present an additional barrier to legal and social change: while the cultural reckoning set in motion by @assaultpolice certainly continues to gain a footing in Egypt, its audience remains limited. Most of the account’s social media posts have, until recently, been written only in English, cutting off viewership among Egypt’s non-English speaking majority. Egypt’s #MeToo movement may benefit from branching out into grassroots activism that would engage rural communities. This may include more programming in Arabic accessible to rural communities lacking the technology to access social media, through non-internet mediums flyers, religious sermons, or home visits. 

Future of #MeToo: 

The momentum that #MeToo has gained in Egypt is remarkable, especially in a country historically riddled with legal roadblocks for survivors hoping to bring sexual assault cases to court. As Egypt’s institutions and lawmakers re-evaluate the legal safeguards for assault victims, prominent women’s rights activists are hopeful of the trajectory of #MeToo. Randa Fakhr El-Deen, executive director of the Union Against Harmful Practices on Women and Children, told World Politics Review that “women used to be scared to talk for fear of shame or reprisal, but now they are encouraged to share their experience. People and society as a whole are also getting involved, which is a very positive step.” However, Fakhr El-Deen is also aware of the work that needs to be to be done: “While people across Egypt, even in remote governorates, are now are of the issue of sexual harassment, many still blame women for these acts. We need to do more.” 

Amr Magdi, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, says that the detaining of witnesses in the Fairmont Incident case signals that “no woman, survivor or witness should come forward and complain about sexual violence, otherwise they might face prosecution and jail.” The barriers to reporting are still salient and may impact the progress that #MeToo can make going forward. Hadia Abdel Fattah, another women’s rights activist, believes that the #MeToo movement needs “grassroots organizations along with art, culture, media, and educational institutions to work together so that people on the streets know how to handle sexual harassment.” Going forward, the #MeToo movement may incorporate an interdisciplinary approach to continue empowering women to speak up and may inspire more intentional discussion in schools and community centers about consent, harassment, and sexual health. 

The image featured in this article is authorized for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License. No changes have been made to the original image, which is attributed to Al Jazeera English and can be found here

Malak Arafa


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