Changing Egypt: Sexual Harassment Criminalized

Allyson Cartwright, Contributing JournalistLast Modified: 00:28 a.m. DST, 18 June 2014

Aliya Mehdi - علياء مهدي, Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, has approved amendment to sexual harassment laws this month that would make sexual harassment a punishable offense with fines and prison sentences.

This action from Mansour also reflects newly-elected incoming President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s stance against sexual harassment. Sisi has recently been vocal about his condemnation of Egypt’s high sexual harassment rates.

According to CNN, the 2013 United Nations report, "Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women", showed that over ninety-nine percent of Egyptian women claim that they have been the victims of some kind of sexual harassment. And The Guardian says that since 2011, there have been over 250 mob sexual attacks at Cairo rallies, according to rights groups.

Mansour’s newly-passed law is a response to international pressure, especially from the US, to reform sexual harassment laws in Egypt. This new law will make sexual harassment a crime with the penalties ranging from fines of at least 3,000 Egyptian pounds ($420) to at least six months of jail time, according to Newsweek.

The law stratifies the severity of different forms of sexual violence, making the more severe have stricter punishments. The baseline definition of sexual harassment the law defines is "implying sexual or obscene gestures, including modern means of communication,” as reported by CNN. This level of harassment is punishable by at least six months in prison, barring any aggravated measure. More severely, CNN says, if the sexual harassment is made with "the intent of receiving sexual gratification from the victim," then the punishment could rise to one year in prison.

Egypt’s soon-to-be President Sisi, however, has come under fire in the past for his treatment of the country’s problems with sexual violence. It was under his leadership as military chief that he defended the Egyptian military’s use of “virginity tests” on female protesters who claim abuse, according to Newsweek.

Despite this, Sisi has recently made strides denouncing sexual harassment when he met publically with a victim, three days after his inauguration. The photocall involved Sisi bringing a bouquet of roses to the hospital bedside of a 19-year-old victim of a mob-related sexual assault, according to CBS News. The victim was at a rally celebrating the election of Sisi when she was stripped and attacked.

When Sisi met with the girl, video showed him standing at her bedside with hospital staff and military aides, as he apologized to the victim. CBS News says that in the video he tells her, "I have come to tell you that I am sorry. I am apologizing to every Egyptian woman." He goes on to say, "We as a nation will not allow this to happen again."

Furthermore, Sisi requested that YouTube remove the video of a sexual assault victim from the website on her behalf. The video shows the woman being stripped and dragged through Tahrir Square at a Sisi election rally, according to Newsweek.

The spokesperson for Sisi released a statement on the YouTube request saying, "The Egyptian embassy in Washington DC and a number of Egyptian authorities, at the direction of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have requested the YouTube administration to remove the video of the sexual assault victim," it continued, "This came in response to her wish, which she expressed during the president's visit to her yesterday at the hospital to check on her condition."

The recent actions by Sisi are promising for the future of Egypt under his presidency. Mozn Hassan, the director of rights group Nazra for Feminist Studies said to The Guardian, "What Sisi did gives a clear message that the government recognizes that this is happening." However, Hassan skeptical of Sisi says, "But the problem is that saying sorry is not the state's responsibility. The state's responsibility is to bring accountability to the people who did it, and to implement a strategic, systematic plan to combat this and eradicate the issue."

Hopefully, with Manour’s criminalization of sexual harassment in addition to Sisi’s public condemnation of the crime, Egypt incidence of the crime will decrease and women’s rights improve. Egypt's National Council for Women seems to be optimistic as they say of the new laws, "(The decision) reflects the keenness of the state and the interest in the protection of women and preservation of their rights."

Follow Allyson on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Journalist: @allysoncwright