'Positive step, but not enough': Women's groups react to Tahrir sexual assault verdict

Marina Barsoum , Thursday 7 Aug 2014

Three men received harsh jail terms on Thursday for sexual assault - but this is just the beginning, say anti-sexual harassment groups

Egyptian women complain of sexual harrassment on a daily basis (Photo: AP)

Anti-sexual harassment campaigns in Egypt say that Thursday's verdict sentencing two men to life in jail and another to 20 years for sexual assault is a "good step" on the long road to combating sexual violence -- but that more still needs to be done to put an end to a growing problem.

On Thursday, a Cairo court found three men guilty of sexual assault during celebrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square after the official announcement of former military chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi as the new president in June -- the latest verdict in a series of sexual violence cases during public rallies in the iconic square.

In July, the court gave nine men jail sentences varying from 20 years to life in prison on the same charges.

"This (verdict) shows that authorities have started to take action," a sexual assault victim, who preferred to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Ahram Online.

"Even the harshest verdict against this assault would still be not enough."

She said she has been sexually assaulted twice and reported the incidents to the police before a new law was issued offering harsher penalties for sexual harassment -- but nothing happened, she said.

"An incident of sexual assault is like a lifelong mark," she said. "It will stay forever in the memory of the victim."  


While many Egyptians were celebrating El-Sisi's victory on 3 June in Tahrir Square, mass sexual assaults were reported across Egyptian news websites and privately-owned satellite channels.

These incidents, among many others like them, quickly came into the spotlight as the new president himself denounced the attacks publicly and visited one victim in the hospital to present an apology and flowers.

Shortly after the attacks, Egypt's presidency formed a committee of government officials and Muslim and Christian spiritual leaders to come up with a strategy to combat the growing phenomenon of sexual harassment in Egypt. 

El-Sisi then issued a statement denouncing the mass sexual assault incidents that took place in Tahrir Square and asked the prosecutor-general to immediately investigate them.

'Just the beginning'

Women rights advocate Mozn Hassan said the verdict is "just the beginning" of fighting the growing phenomenon.

"Some people may see this as a harsh verdict, but if they have witnessed the injuries and burns made by the attackers and how the victims suffered from being harassed in a public square they would have understood the verdict," said Hassan, who works for the NGO Nazra for Feminist Studies.

She said Nazra along with other anti-sexual harassment groups issued a joint statement after the July verdict in which they called for an immediate investigation into all other sexual harassment reports that have been documented from 2011 to 2012 in Tahrir Square.

"The verdict is definitely a positive step, but it's still not enough," said Hassan.

Other activists agreed that the verdict is a good step forward.

"This will help sexually assaulted women believe that the country has started penalising harassers," said Azza Kamel, co-founder of Egyptian Women for Change and director of the Appropriate Communications Technique for Development (ACT).

"I hope that all sexual assault reports be investigated and get verdicts with the same speed as this Tahrir assault report, as it will help women believe that they will get back their rights and will make the harasser think before assaulting any women," said Kamel.

Rights groups and anti-sexual harassment campaigns have demanded for years that the government take serious action to fight the increasing number of sexual assaults.

Hassan said the government has responded to the group's calls by meeting with Mervat El-Talawy, head of the National Council for Women, and other rights groups' representatives to discuss a national strategic plan to combat violence against women.

"Nothing has been publicly reported about this meeting or the mechanisms of the strategic plan; thus we are still asking the government to announce its plans and mechanisms as to how it is working to fight violence against women in Egypt," she said.

In June, former interim president Adly Mansour approved a sexual harassment law offering penalties of up to five years in prison, a fine of LE10,000 or both for guilty persons.

Weak law?

The law, however, has been deemed "weak" by some activists.

"Ever since the government issued this new law, we have been crying out that the law is weak and unclear," said Zeinab Sabet, founder of Dignity without Borders (DWB), a group combating sexual harassment in Egypt.

Sabet said that the mechanism of enforcing the law is not totally practical as it requires the victim to bring the assailant to the police station as well as provide witnesses.

She said that if the wording of the law is not clear enough, it will not be enforced.

Sabet added that Thursday's verdict cannot be considered as a victory because the lengthy prison terms were not for breaking the anti-sexual harassment law but rather for other charges already in the criminal code.

"This incident got a lot of attention from the media and Egypt's president since it occurred during his inauguration," said Sabet, who doubts that other cases will get similar attention.

She stressed that many accounts of sexual assault have been documented by anti-sexual harassment groups during the recent Eid El-Fitr holiday but that no investigations have been launched.

Sexual harassment has been a growing problem in Egypt in the last 10 years.

Out of hundreds of women surveyed, more than 99 percent across seven of the country's 27 governorates reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, ranging from minor harassment to rape, according to an April 2013 report by the United Nations along with Egypt's Demographic Centre and the National Planning Institute.

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