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Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Empowering posts on social media in Egypt: Accused serial rapist behind bars

Al-Ahram Weekly reports on how online allegations of sexual assaults led to police action

Ahmed Morsy , Wednesday 8 Jul 2020
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Allegations from tens of young women accusing the same man of harassment, sexual assault and rape have gone viral over the past week. Ahmed Bassam Zaki, the alleged serial rapist, has now been detained.

On Monday the prosecutor-general said the detention of Zaki, who was arrested on Saturday, was extended by the court for 15 days pending investigation into the allegations of rape and sexual assault.

Zaki was accused by the prosecution of sexually assaulting two women and a minor girl using force and threats.

The prosecution also accused him of blackmailing these and other women to force them to have sex with him and to prevent them from ending their relationship with him.

According to the statement, the prosecution questioned six women, including a minor, who had filed official reports against him. They all said that Zaki sexually assaulted them after luring them to his place. Some of the women gave the prosecution evidence of Zaki’s sexual attempts in the form of messages of harassment.

Zaki confessed that he blackmailed six women with whom he had previously been in a relationship, using explicit images of them they had shared with him. He denied all the other accusations made against him on social media over the past few days.

Following the spread of the sexual assault allegations Zaki, 22, a former student at the American University in Cairo (AUC), was expelled from the Business School in Barcelona, where he was studying online, his father told MBC Masr channel.

Posts from girls who said they had been sexually assaulted by Zaki began to surface last week on Twitter and Instagram. An Instagram account, @assaultpolice, was then created, urging young women to share accounts of their experiences. It quickly collected more than 100 testimonies, screenshots of messages, and audio recordings. The online accounts included two by young men, one of them 15 years old, accusing Zaki of abusing them.

Despite the plethora of online activity, prosecutors released a statement saying they had received “one official complaint made online on 3 July from a girl who said the young man threatened her in November 2016 in order to have sex with her”.

Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW) said a day earlier it was carefully following the case and called on all the girls who have made online allegations to file official reports about Zaki.

Social stigma is one of the main reasons girls are reluctant to report such incidents, says psychiatrist Remon Qannas.

“Unfortunately, society blames the victim and not the harasser in most sexual assault cases. For many people it is the woman’s words, actions, or the way she is dressed that pushed the man to harass her.”

Many online comments on the case bear this out. In response, Al-Azhar stressed that a woman’s behaviour or clothing cannot be an excuse for attacking her dignity and freedom. The Sunni world’s leading religious institute refused to blame the victims or regard them as partners in sin.

“Social pressure often leaves the victim in a state of terror, and she becomes reluctant to talk about the abuse she was exposed to,” says Qannas.

“When the situation changes and society appears supportive of the victim this emboldens other women to come forward.”

For those whom Zaki allegedly harassed it may well have seemed as if he would never pay any legal price until a testimony by an unidentified girl surfaced online detailing her assault and harassment and prompting more young women to speak out.

Samia Khedr, a professor of sociology at Ain Shams University, believes that the community support the victim received encouraged other girls to speak out without fear. “When the victim feels that someone is supporting her and standing with her in her ordeal, she overcomes her fear and is able to speak openly,” Khedr told Al-Ahram Weekly.

A number of public figures offered support to the victims via live videos on social media platforms, while others recited their own experiences of harassment, among them actress Mayan Al-Sayed.

“I didn’t speak about these incidents because I did not know how to deal with them or how I should act,” Al-Sayed said during the video.

Now, because of the girls speaking about the abuse they had suffered, Al-Sayed said she at last felt empowered to speak, and had taken the decision that henceforth she would never remain silent when faced with verbal or physical abuse.

In 2014, in an effort to crack down on the problem, harassment was criminalised for the first time. Perpetrators faced up to five years in jail and LE50,000 in fines.

Sexual harassment has been a growing problem in Egypt, with national holidays now associated with cases of sexual violence as large numbers of young men celebrate Eid on the streets.

“Egyptian society is in real danger,” says Khedr. She urged the media to avoid broadcasting material that promotes harassment or encourages harassers.

Many pundits blame TV shows and films that portray harassment of women as somehow cool.

“Such scenes are a major reason behind the deteriorating condition of society,” says Khedr.

In the past, she argues, families were more cohesive, and the media more respectful.

“When society’s problems were dealt with in the past in series and movies it was done in a way that showed the perpetrator being punished in the end. This is not the case now.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Empowering posts

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