“I was sexually harassed…I was sexually harassed…I was sexually harassed,” a powerful video featuring a cross section of actresses, activists, business women and influencers repeating the same sentence over and over again, an echo of what has shaken the Egyptian elite over the summer of 2020. The problem of sexual violence is not new in Egypt, a 2013 United Nations study found that 99.3 per cent of women had reportedly experienced some form of harassment, with 96 per cent claiming to have been physically assaulted. The issue is widely acknowledged with many television programmes, news reports and films going back a number of decades exploring the topic. But what happened this time around was different, even with this history of sexual violence, the claims against a variation of men of rape and sexual assault took many by surprise.
On 1 July, a social media post was published accusing 22-year-old Ahmed Zaki of rape. By the evening, 50 more women would claim Zaki abused them and within a few days this number reached 100. Charges against him ranged from emotional blackmail, slut-shaming, threatening behaviour, physical violence, coercive and non-consensual sex. Zaki is a graduate of the American University in Cairo, a stomping ground of Egypt’s elite families and future leaders, a place where Arabic and English sentences are blended together, and a place where he is alleged to have selected some of his victims. Astonishingly, some of the accusations predate his time at the university and paint a picture of abusive behaviour towards women going back to high school.
But Zaki’s case also created a hole in the narrative widely used to explain Egypt’s endemic sexual violence problem, which unveiled class-anxiety within the Arab world’s most populous nation. Officially approved discourse disseminated through the mass media holds that sex attackers are poor, un or underemployed young men, who have few savings, are unable to get married, are undereducated or illiterate and due to the social and religious conservatism of working class society are sexually frustrated and so are unleashing their pent-up desires on women in the street. This was not Zaki. Zaki was from an affluent background, educated and thus ‘civilised’ with the best job prospects ahead of him. He was not alone, within days of accusations against him, more and more female sexual assault victims poured onto social media sites to accuse other men of sexual violence, all of whom held high powered positions.
The snowball effect led to many new online initiatives by women’s rights activists to encourage more women to speak out. Instagram pages like ‘Assault Police’ appeared trying to find ways to support victims and to pressure the authorities to act. The Egyptian government seemingly acted quickly, Zaki was arrested and charged, women’s bodies affiliated with the state urged people to come forward and new legislation was passed to protect the identities of the victims. One case, however, tested the authorities’ claim to take these crimes seriously: the 2014 Fairmont hotel gangrape.
A republic of rumours
On Friday 21 February 2014, a party attended by wealthy young Egyptians and foreigners at the five-star Fairmont hotel with performances from professional dancers, described by CairoScene as “unforgettable and unmissable”, ended traumatically for one young lady. At a private suite, an unconscious woman, who had only turned 18 a few months prior, was being meted out to a group of men who allegedly forcibly had sex with her. The woman is believed to have been drugged by the men, witnesses claim she was in and out of consciousness throughout, while others assert she was passed out most of the time. A group of men are alleged to have had intercourse with her while one man filmed it, once the act was done, each man wrote his name on her naked body. As a final trophy, her knocked out body was slouched onto a chair with her arms left dangling, bottles are placed on her and pictures were taken. The images were circulated by the men to their friends who boasted about their sexual encounters that evening. Nobody said a thing and they were never reported.
Details of the night emerged after the Ahmed Zaki case and demands for justice vibrant, the National Council for Women passed on the young woman’s testimony to the state prosecutor who issued arrest warrants for nine men, however, finding out about the case building against them, three of the men fled the country to Lebanon, where following Interpol intervention, they are arrested and brought back to Egypt. While the case is still ongoing, concerning signs that there are attempts to derail the case are coming to light. In late August, a number of witnesses who were helping the authorities with the cases against the alleged rapists, were arrested and the reasons for their detention remain a mystery.
There have been claims of immoral behaviour, of conspiracy to harm the country’s reputation and that the witnesses have been taken into protective custody, circulated in Egypt’s mainstream and social media. One witness, Nazli Karim, the daughter of a famous actress, found her reputation being smeared with a video of her partying at the hotel on the evening of the rape going viral on social network sites and claims of prostitution, group sex and lesbian orgies levelled against her and the other witnesses. Nazli’s family refuted the rumours and pointed out that she was at the hotel with her then husband, who is one of the suspects in the gangrape.
Sex as a policing weapon
While the Fairmont hotel rape case is still ongoing, many are concerned that justice may never be realised. Some activists point to the detention of female TikTok users on vague charges of ‘immoral behaviour’, including one user who shared her experience of being raped, as proof the Egyptian state is playing a double game in sexual assault cases. In 2005, during a constitutional referendum which attracted demonstrations by women activists, a group of men turned up and sexually assaulted the protesters. Many of the activists involved believe this was not a random attack and that the men were bused in to confront them, similar things happened at other protests. During the 2011 Egyptian Revolution there were no reports of rape and sexual assault against female protestors in places like Tahrir Square, but as soon as Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president and a new administration took over to manage the country, stories of mass sex attacks against female demonstrators increased. Large groups of men unconnected to the protests would suddenly turn up and force themselves onto the women. These incidents created a cloud of suspicion around the role of the Egyptian state in such attacks. AUC sociologist Helen Rizzo told MEMO that many activists suspect the government was sending a message to female demonstrators not to protest and to do so would be dangerous. Some of the 2011 demonstrators were subject to so-called virginity tests by the police after being detained at protests in an attempt to harm their reputations and humiliate them.
Egypt’s MeToo moment has encouraged many to come forward to share their stories, but social and political structures in the country and the way the state handles ongoing cases will ultimately decide the fate of the movement and the strength of others to come forward too. Will their campaigning actually lead to justice or will it gradually fade out with little lasting change? It is not clear if social attitudes have shifted enough to tackle the culture of misogyny that enables such crimes to take place, but without political change to accompany any social effort, the movement will run into walls.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.