Spurred by a widely shared video said to show a mob sexual assault on a woman in Tahrir Square, President Abdel Fattah Sisi pledged Tuesday to take “all necessary measures” to combat such attacks and ordered vigorous enforcement of a new law that for the first time criminalizes sex harassment.
Rights advocates welcomed the 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 iconic square in recent days as Sisi backers hailed his victory in last month’s presidential election. The attack that was captured on video occurred 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 had remained silent Monday as shaky footage of a bloodied, naked woman, encircled by a grasping crowd of men, rocketed across social media sites and prompted an explosion of commentary on Twitter and Facebook.
Compounding the outrage, another much-disseminated 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 young woman who was set upon by a group of men on the campus of Cairo University was criticized 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 in recent years.
“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 the three years since autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled. Previously, human rights groups had reported nearly 100 sexual assaults in the square in a four-day span last summer, as crowds were demanding the removal of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
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.
Many sex-assault victims say their ordeal is compounded by police who ridicule and harass them if they try to report an attack. The presidential statement said the Interior Ministry had been instructed to honor the police officer who rescued a woman from the mob. In the video, a policeman can be seen holding up a gun as the mob surges around him, and helping a woman toward an ambulance.
In the run-up to the election, Sisi made a point of appealing for the backing of female voters, and speaking of his reverence for all Egyptian women. But he is remembered by rights groups for defending the infamous “virginity tests” inflicted on detained female protesters in 2011 by security forces then under his command.
A major general at the time, Sisi rose to the rank of field marshal before stepping down from the position to run for president as a civilian.