Halfway through his first week in office, Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is handing down heavy sentences to protesters and critics of his regime but has been slower to follow up on promises that he would act to stem the country’s epidemic of sexual assault.
On Monday, a video showing the sexual assault of a woman by a crowd of men during Sisi’s inaugural celebration in Tahrir Square Sunday night went viral on YouTube, generating an international outcry against the widespread problem of sexual assault and harassment in Egypt. Sexual violence has plagued the square since 2011, when dictator Hosni Mubarak was pushed from power and the police force disintegrated.
Sisi, the former head of Egypt’s armed forces, led a military coup that toppled Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, Mohamed Morsi, last July. Following the establishment of an interim government, Sisi’s security forces wiped out scores of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters, many of whom had helped oust Mubarak, and committed the largest mass killing in Egypt’s modern history, killing over 1,000 pro-Morsi protestors at a sit-in last August at Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque.
According to a coalition of rights groups, there were 250 cases of mass sexual assault during public gatherings between November 2012 and January 2014, and at least nine more during Sunday’s rally. According to U.N. research published last year, 99 percent of Egyptian women have experienced sexual harassment.
To make matters worse, the pro-Sisi Egyptian press have trivialized the growing problem. Appearing on a live talk-show covering the inauguration, a senior editor from a state-run paper called Sunday’s assaults “exceptional and limited,” adding, “it is obvious that the celebration is big.” “The people are having fun,” responded one host, Maha Bahnasy, after she was confronted with news of the ongoing sexual violence. Bahnasy later tried to explain on her Facebook page that she was misunderstood: “I was, along with my guests, commenting on people’s joy, not the harassment.”
In recent public statements, Sisi has struck a different tone, vowing to crack down on perpetrators of sexual assault and instructing his minister of the interior “to vigorously enforce the law and take all necessary measures to combat sexual harassment, an unacceptable form of conduct.” Egypt criminalized sexual harassment for the first time in its history last week. While criminalization is an important first step, many Egyptians are worried Sisi is making empty gestures and won’t follow through with his bold rhetoric. A joint statement published by 25 women’s rights groups released Monday called for “a holistic national strategy to combat [sexual assault] and comprehensive legal reform.” Only seven men have been arrested in relation to Sunday’s attacks.
While Sisi’s inaction around sexual assault casts doubt on his commitment to seriously addressing the issue, he has proved much more successful in silencing dissent and doling out heavy sentences to protesters. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch declared “a human rights crisis as dire as in any period in the country’s modern history” on Tuesday, pointing to widespread torture, imprisonment, and restrictions on freedom of speech that rival repression under Mubarak.
“Instead of addressing the urgent need for reform, Egyptian authorities have spent the last year engaging in repression on a scale unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history,” said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, the deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International at Human Rights Watch. According to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, over 41,000 Egyptians have faced criminal charges or arrest since Morsi was ousted last July- more than double the number of people held by Mubarak in administrative detention.
The U.S. has offered a mixed response to Sisi’s ongoing suppression of democracy. The lion’s share of the $1.5 billion of U.S. aid put on hold to Egypt is still frozen, and the 10 Apache helicopters the U.S. promised to give to Egypt in April remain in storage. As of now, there’s no timetable for fully restoring aid, and the State Department has expressed lack of “satisfaction” with the pace of democratic progress in the nation. However, in his foreign policy address at West Point on May 28, Obama defended America’s alliance with Egypt: “In Egypt, we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests — from the peace treaty with Israel, to shared efforts against violent extremism. So we have not cut off cooperation with the new government. But we can and will persistently press for the reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded.” Whether the U.S. will step up pressure on Sisi to end the human rights crisis remains yet to be seen.