Change has been a constant fixture in the lives of Egyptians since the 2011 uprising which saw the fall of the 30-year Mubarak regime. The movement towards greater parity between the people and the government reached a second climax in early July 2013 when unprecedented numbers gathered across Egypt to call for the resignation of the first democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohammad Morsi. For many, the political upheaval of recent years signalled a meaningful movement toward social progress. Many had hoped that the shift from the tyranny of the Mubarak era would mean secularism, greater personal liberty, and egalitarianism. Unfortunately for Egyptians, these freedoms, rights, and redresses have not yet been put in place.

A persistent problem

Chronic sexual harassment and assault of women has become one of the defining issues for human rights activists in Egypt. In recent decades the problem has intensified, reaching epidemic levels in recent years. A study by UN Women published earlier this year showed that 99.3% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed.

The situation reached new, horrifying levels during the protests which began on June 30th 2013. By July 9th, there were 186 reported cases of mob assaults in Tahrir, including rape and rape with a bladed weapon. Witnesses often do nothing to help the victim, and many men participate in the assaults. Activists report that attacks are occasionally instigated by men who are paid to target female protesters specifically in order to deter them from participating in public political life. For every group of 50-100 assaulters around 5 are paid, according to volunteers from Operation Anti Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH) and the HarassMapinitiative. Organised sexual harassment and assault are intended to produce gender-specific forms of exclusion through terrorising women and girls.

Taking action on the ground

OpAntiSH are doing preventative work on the ground, working actively against sexual harassment and assault when they see it, and encouraging citizen participation via HarassMap, an online tool developed in 2010 which allows people to map the location of a sexual assault as it happens. Noora Flinkman, a marketing and communications officer at HarassMap, elaborated on her group’s analysis that mob assaults are, in some cases, organised. ‘We believe that mob attacks have sometimes been, and sometimes still are, organized. Our experience working with OpAntiSH in Tahrir square shows that attacks often happen in very similar ways, following similar tactics and patterns, and often simultaneously.’ Noora also notes the extremely violent nature of the attacks, adding ‘attackers have sometimes used sharp objects to rape girls and women, and other weapons to keep our volunteers from intervening to rescue the attacked.’ In the first wave of protests that ousted them, HarassMap showed that the Mubarak regime and Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) were responsible for paying packs of men to sexually assault female protesters. In addition, Noora claims that ‘many of the attacks that took place in November 2012 and January 25 2013 were most certainly more or less organized (and carried out by people who had been paid).’ In the recent cases, however, identifying both the perpetrators and those paying them has been difficult.

Turning a blind eye

Crucially, the majority of attackers seem to be bystanders who decide to join the assault of the victim: these men are ‘unorganised’ opportunists. The assault often begins with a small group isolating the victim and circling her. Once the assault begins, passers-by typically participate in the increasingly brutal attacks. For many activists like Noora, this is the key issue. ‘Whether or not these attacks are organized and/or pre-planned/paid for, it is important to acknowledge that the magnitude and viciousness of the attacks would not exist on this scale if it weren’t for the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of bystanders who choose to join the attack rather than to try to stop it.’ Mainstream attitudes and cultural practises have made Egypt a dangerous place to be a woman. Chronic inattention to women’s rights issues combined with victim blaming and a culture of denial means that men (62% of whom admitted to harassing women in a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights) can attack women with impunity. ‘Assaults have become tolerated, accepted, and expected, and instead of intervening to stop them, people often make excuses for attackers and blame women themselves for being attacked. Some people even deny that mob assaults or sexual harassment happen at all’, reports Noora.

Taking back the streets

If the ambition of those engaging in the organised sexual assault was to terrify women out of participating in public demonstrations, the feeling on the ground is that they were unsuccessful. Noora reports that ‘many women who themselves have been assaulted also choose to either go out and protest again, or join OpAntiSH or Tahrir Bodyguardas volunteers.’ Further action needs to be taken both on the ground and from above in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in order to make sexual harassment, politically motivated or not, disappear from Cairo streets.

by Sawsan Bastawy

About the author

Sawsan Bastawy is a writer, blogger, and researcher with an interest in the Middle East. She graduated in 2013 with a BA degree in Philosophy and is an ambassador for Wild Futures.