On Saturday, a Cairo court found journalist and writer Rasha Azab not guilty of charges of insult, defamation, and deliberately disturbing film director Islam Azazi.
The case dates to December 2020 when the online blog Daftar Hekayat published anonymous testimonies from six survivors who said that Islam had sexually assaulted them, with one accusing him of rape.
As a prominent defender of women's rights, Rasha tweeted in solidarity with the women. In response, Islam filed a complaint against her and the case was referred to court.
A solidarity campaign went viral on social media and several human rights organisations came out publicly in support of Rasha's case. Amnesty International called on the Egyptian authorities to immediately put an end to her persecution.
The pressure worked. But whilst Rasha's acquittal over the weekend is positive news, her ordeal goes to the heart of Egypt's dismal treatment of outspoken citizens, including those that support women, and the judiciary's role in persecuting them.
Rasha's lawyer has said that the evidence submitted against her had serious errors and that it is still unclear why Islam's accusation was taken seriously.
"We don't know why this case escalated and went to court," Rasha tells MEMO. "There are several guesses, but it was interesting that it was kept [on the backburner] for a year without investigations or proven technical evidence, and then it was referred with alarming speed."
"My defence team said that if the provisions of the law were fulfilled without any political interference, I would obtain my acquittal. The case papers have serious legal and procedural flaws."
The Egyptian government regularly prosecutes women on morality charges as a retaliatory measure for content they share on social media, says Equality Now, an NGO advocating for the protection of women and girls, a pattern noted by several human rights organisations.
This can include survivors of sexual abuse, as seen in the prosecution of social media influencer Menna Abdelaziz, who in May 2020 appeared in a live video with a bruised face saying she had been raped and beaten.
Menna was arrested by security forces not long after and spent four months in pretrial detention on charges of "inciting debauchery" and "violating family principles and values," familiar charges often levelled, by the state, against women to justify their repression.
Women's rights activist Amal Fathy was sentenced to a year in prison after releasing a video on Facebook accusing the Egyptian government of failing to protect sexual harassment victims whilst TikTok star Haneen Hossam was sentenced to three years in prison for human trafficking at a retrial earlier this month after she shared videos of herself lip-syncing to songs.
"The chilling effect of defamation cases like this is grave," Jorie Dugan, a lawyer and legal adviser for Equality Now, tells MEMO. "Survivors of sexual violence are discouraged from speaking out about their experiences when they see others being prosecuted for expressing themselves, whether it is another survivor or a women's rights advocate like Rasha Azab."
Two years ago, a social media campaign erupted after over 100 women made allegations of sexual assault against former AUC student Ahmed Zaki as part of the country's growing #MeToo movement, which piled pressure on Egyptian authorities to put an end to impunity for perpetrators and punitive measures for the victims.
A draft law followed shortly after, which promised to protect the anonymity of sexual assault survivors with the aim of encouraging more to come forward. But the Egyptian authorities have not widely implemented the law and have instead met the increase in women speaking out with state sanctions including travel bans and imprisonment.
"Despite recent legislative reforms in Egypt to strengthen rights for women, sexual harassment and gender-based violence remain rife throughout the country," says Dugan.
Two years have passed since the six women shared their stories with Daftar Hekayat. Authorities have still not investigated the allegations against Islam Azazi and have continued to target and imprison women. But Rasha's fight for women continues: "I was and still insist on supporting anonymity as a right for abused women," she says.
"I see the ruling as a culmination of women's struggles in Egypt. The survivors of sexual harassment and rape [are] smiling at last, after fear engulfed their hearts. Fear of disclosing no longer has a place, and female activists also feel that now they can raise the voice of the unknown – anonymous survivors – without any concerns or threats of prosecution. This ruling closes the door that could have been opened for all rapists and harassers to chase and silence survivors and solidarity activists."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.