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June 10, 2014
A video shows a woman, stripped naked, bruised and beaten, running from a frenzied mob. The video is shaky, sometimes completely blurred, but there is no mistaking the disturbing image that went viral on YouTube a few days ago. The circumstances leading to what can be seen in the video are unclear. According to most reports, the video was shot in Tahrir Square on June 8, amid celebrations for the inauguration of Egypt’s eighth president, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In the wake of the video, seven suspects were arrested. Based on a newly passed sexual harassment law, they could face up to five years in prison. But one thing remains clear, legislation alone is not sufficient to address sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is endemic in Egypt. A United Nations report published in 2013 shows that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment. In the five days leading up to the July 3 ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, over 100 incidents of sexual assault were reported in Tahrir Square alone. Over the past three years, mass protests have been the site of violent attacks on women, with some describing them as systematic attempts to deter them from political participation. While sexual assault on women has been employed as a tool by regimes in Egypt, both under former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, the fact remains that mob attacks on women have taken place outside the protest arena long before and after the January 2011 uprising.

The June 8 attack in Tahrir, which according to one account lasted twenty minutes until a police officer who can be seen in the video brandishing a gun was able to push the crowd back, has brought with it a slew of reactions, many of which have been highly politicized.

One of the immediate reactions to several reports of sexual assault taking place during the celebrations, but not specifically in response to the video, came courtesy of private satellite channel Tahrir’s anchor Maha Bahnassy. Upon hearing from her channel’s correspondent on the scene of reports of sexual harassment in Tahrir Square, she laughingly justified it, saying, “They are happy and celebrating.” She has since said that her comment was not in response to the correspondent’s statement, and was taken out of context.

At least one talk show host on Tahrir TV, however, has commented on the video itself. Mohamed al-Ghaity claims it was first published by activist and blogger Wael Abbas and then by pro-Muslim Brotherhood news network, Rassd. Bahnassy also happened to share Ghaity’s statement on her Facebook page. Ghaity describes Abbas as an agent for several intelligence agencies, drawing ties between the activist, US intelligence and the Brotherhood. He ignores the fact that Abbas was among the first to expose police torture under the Mubarak regime and was the first, incidentally, to publish images of the 2006 mob assaults on women.

Tahrir TV anchors are not alone in attempting to draw links between the release of the video and the Brotherhood. In addition to other pro-government independent media outlets supporting the theory, the state-affiliated National Council for Women (NCW) put out a statement saying that a group with “ulterior motives” was behind the attack. It has also offered to provide legal support for victims of sexual harassment. Civil society organization Ibn Khaldun’s Dalia Ziada, echoed the NCW’s sentiments, explicitly calling out the Brotherhood. Ziada ended her comments by asking authorities to treat the incident, not just as a case of sexual assault, but as a terrorist attack.

This attitude was seen once again when questions emerged over when exactly the video was shot. While most reports have stated that the incident caught on tape occurred in Tahrir on the evening of Sisi’s inauguration, according to the BBC, the video was apparently posted online on June 4. This has led some Sisi supporters to claim that the timing of the release of the video was nothing more than an attempt to tarnish the joyful celebrations of the presidential inauguration. Like the other reactions, the questions on the timing sideline the reality of the attack.

Ziada’s suggestion to treat it as a terrorism case does little to help the victim, nor does it address a societal ill in dire need of attention. Labeling the attack as terrorism, and linking it to a group vilified in Egyptian media and homes, disconnects the assault from the core issue: rape. The discourse is no longer about what needs to be done about sexual harassment in Egypt. Labelling it as a Muslim Brotherhood-orchestrated attack carries with it the risk of shifting the conversation in the wrong direction.

Meanwhile, the government has responded to the release of the video. The prosecutor has called for an inquiry into the attack, while at least six men have been detained for several days pending investigation. The policeman who protected the woman from the mob will be honored by the ministry of interior.

In the past, sexual harassment carried a prison sentence, but stigma and shame have cowed women into silence against assault. Days before Sisi’s inauguration, however, outgoing President Adly Mansour introduced tougher penalties for sexual harassment. Under the new law, harassers could face anywhere from six months to five years in prison, along with fines ranging from EGP 3,000 to EGP 50,0000. While these laws are new, the incident may show whether or not they will actually be enforced, as the stigma remains.

Sisi has called on the interior minister to “vigorously enforce the law” and “take all necessary measures to combat sexual harassment,” but a responsibility exists for the Egyptian government, state and independent media, rights organizations, and society to deal with this issue. State institutions need to address it head on, rather than depend on initiatives such as “I Saw Harassment” and “Tahrir Bodyguard,” all of which were founded by concerned citizens who have chosen to fill a gap left by the government. Most problematic of all, however, is the cultural and social challenge that still needs to be addressed. The first step is choosing not to justify the unjustifiable. 

Nancy Messieh is the associate director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and editor of EgyptSource