The common factor: sexual violence and the Egyptian state, 2011-2014

We must conceptualise the epidemic levels of sexual violence in post-revolutionary Egypt at least partly as “state violence”, and resist the state’s attempt to selectively appropriate women’s rights. Every post-revolutionary Egyptian regime has the blood of women on its hands.

Heather McRobie
6 October 2014
Painting of woman in blue bra being pointed at by surrounding people (reference to police assault on Tahrir protester)

Artwork referencing the Egyptian army's assault of a woman in a blue bra. Artwork: Bassem Yousri. All Rights Reserved.The ‘epidemic’ levels of sexual harassment and sexual assault of women in Egypt have been a defining feature of the revolutionary and post-revolutionary period, extensively documented by activists and civic initiatives working to mitigate against it, yet a phenomenon that has persisted for the last three years since the revolution. 

Although the sexual violence of the revolutionary/ post-revolutionary period developed from the pre-existing, alarming levels of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the Mubarak era, revolutionary/ post-revolutionary sexual violence also had its own causes and dynamics, due to the politicised ‘charge’ public space attained during the revolution.  The issue of sexual violence itself has also been politicised in the increasingly polarized discourse of post-revolutionary Egypt. Sexual violence was, throughout the last three years since the revolution, used as a weapon to ‘drive women from the protests’ and back to the private sphere, used to maintain control and fear by the police, riot police and army, and used by politically-affiliated groups to target ‘enemy’ women.

Egyptian women were on the frontline of the 2011 revolution and crucial to the movement that overthrew Mubarak; however, in the post-revolutionary period they have also become targets of sexual violence, including by the state. Nadje Al-Ali recently comprehensively detailed the issue of sexual violence in Iraq, and its appropriation by Orientalist narratives that seek to create a dichotomy between ‘violent’ Iraqis and the ‘civilised’ west, as well as its politicisation within Iraq by who wish to isolate the atrocities of ISIS from the violence against women committed by a range of political actors.  Similarly, Egypt’s post-revolutionary sexual violence cannot be isolated from the pre-2011 situation, nor disingenuously politicised as stemming only from one post-2011 regime such as the period of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed rule in 2012-2013.  Nonetheless the period from 2011-2014 does require examination as a specific period in which sexual violence in Egypt became a tool utilised both by state actors, non-state political organisations, and others – terrorising women for exercising their right to protest, for their political allegiance, and also simply as women who entered public space.

A women faces a crowd of men.

Altercation as women gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square on International Women's Day, 2011. Photo: Sallie Pisch / DemotixIn its report on sexual harassment in Egypt earlier this year, Human Rights Watch estimated that at least 500 women were sexually assaulted by mobs in Egypt between 2011 and 2014, in what it describes as an “epidemic” of sexual violence against women.  This is not even counting sexual violence and physical abuse committed in the ‘private sphere’ of the home.  Similarly, although sexual violence can be perpetrated against someone of any sex or gender, the predominant social phenomenon in Egypt is sexual violence by men against women, and since the revolution this has played out in a particular way in the quasi-‘spectacle’-like nature of mass sexual assaults in public spaces such as sites of protests.  Sexual violence against men, both under-researched and under-reported due to a variety of taboos, is also a serious concern, but not a significant phenomenon of the way in which public space became a site of mass sexual violence in and after the revolution.

The pre-revolutionary situation and the legacy of state violence

In surveying the ‘epidemic’ level of sexual violence since 2011, an important conceptual component in understanding it is locating the role of the state and quasi-state-actors in these attacks.  The military, politically-identified groups, and organised mobs (both armed and unarmed) ‘representing’ or ‘acting on behalf of’ first the Mubarak and then the successive post-revolutionary regimes –  and the police — have all committed sexual assaults on women.  As such, the epidemic of sexual violence in post-revolutionary Egypt must also be understood in part as state violence upon civilians with gendered dimensions – as ‘state violence against women’. 

Pre-existing conditions set the stage for this epidemic, both in terms of the twentieth-century heritage of authoritarianism and the pre-revolutionary constructions of gender roles and the gendered nature of public space.  Women’s rights activists working on the issue have frequently sought to clarify that the ‘pre-revolutionary’ period also had a societal-level problem with sexual harassment and sexual violence towards women, as well as related gender inequalities in both the ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres.  

For instance, a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 83% of Egyptian women said they had been victims of sexual harassment, and as many as 46% experienced it on a daily basis.  Cairo before the revolution was known regionally as a city in which being female in public space was often fraught, as the anonymity of the vast metropolis provided opportunities for male harassers.

There are both continuities and striking differences with sexual harassment and sexual violence under the Mubarak period: in 2005, for instance, Egyptian human rights organisations documented the use of pro-regime vigilantes by the Mubarak regime to sexually assault female journalists and activists, a tactic – often later deployed after the revolution – of attempting to silence women either for their views or merely for exercising their freedom of expression, and targeting them on the grounds of their gender – terrorising them sexually – in order to achieve this aim.

Despite these pre-existing conditions, however, the revolution also brought new elements into the social and political dynamic in which sexual violence escalated to ‘epidemic’ levels. The February 2011 revolution saw mass protests in urban areas on an unprecedented scale in the country.  This mass movement of citizens demonstrating against the regime was, of course, central to forcing Mubarak to finally relinquish power.  However, as sociologists of urban space in Egypt have noted, the social dynamics of mass protest, and the mass movement of civilians in the city, also disrupted pre-existing understandings of how public space is used, and what is permissible, overturning normal use of space and recognition of boundaries. 

It is therefore perhaps worth distinguishing between the two types of sexual harassment and assault that were taking place during this period.  Citizen-run organisations and initiatives such as Tahrir Bodyguard, which worked through the revolution to prevent sexual harassment and assaults and help survivors of assaults, were emphatic that much of the harassment and sexual violence was opportunistic, due to the sudden presence of large numbers of people of both genders on the streets in urban areas, particularly Cairo and Alexandria.  These opportunistic predators were apolitical, taking advantage of the (now often overlooked) fact that Egyptian women were at the frontline of organising the revolutionary demonstrations from the start. 

2011: sexual violence during the revolution and under the interim constitution

Throughout 2011, however, as Mubarak’s resignation led to the temporary rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), it became increasingly clear that sexual assaults and harassment were also coordinated.  In the months after Mubarak’s resignation there were a number of gang rapes in and around Tahrir Square which coincided with protests that women ‘leave the demonstrations’, and were seen as an attempt to forcibly drive or scare women away from protesting.  Moreover, as tensions developed between the revolutionary activists (such as students and supporters of the spear-heading April 6th Youth Movement) and the army that held ‘interim’ power through 2011, there were a series of sexual assaults committed on women by the armed forces and riot police.

One notable instance during this period in which the Egyptian state perpetrated sexual violence against women happened in March 2011, in which the military detained 17 women at a protest and subjected them to forced “virginity testing.”  Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the head of military intelligence at the time, defended this action by the army on the ground that ‘proving’ the women were virgins would protect the army against ‘false’ accusations of rape (operating on the faulty logic that only virgins can be raped, an idea bound up with patriarchal conceptions of female ‘purity’).   Protests in public spaces intensified and fractured during the build up to the first post-revolutionary Presidential elections, and were frequently accompanied by sexual violence including gang rapes.

The election of Mohammed Morsi, the Freedom and Justice Party candidate seen as aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2012, came as mass sexual violence attacks in urban areas were increasing – and as activists had begun to confer and mobilise against the problem.  In a bitter illustration of the climate at the time, on June 8th 2012 activists organised a demonstration to ‘stop sexual harassment in Tahrir’, which ended in several mass sexual assaults, despite the fact the women organizing the march had demonstrated deliberately surrounded by sympathetic men who were in solidarity with their protest. 

The citizen-led organisation Banat Misr Khatt Ahmar (The Girls of Egypt Are a Red Line) was founded in this period to raise awareness among citizens of that damage caused by sexual harassment, addressing the widespread and ‘opportunistic’ sexual harassment and assault. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, another citizen-led organisation founded in late 2012 to both combat and document sexual harassment and assault in public space, took the position that at least some of the assaults, particularly gang rapes by large groups of men against a single woman, were pre-planned and politicised attacks.  Such attacks either targeted women in an attempt to drive ‘all’ women, whatever their allegiance, back out of public space, or partisan assaults in which women were sexually assaulted as ‘punishment’ for their particular political allegiance. 

Sexual violence during Morsi’s 2012 constitutional crisis

As the divide grew between secular revolutionaries and Muslim Brotherhood supporters, Tahrir Square and other major sites of protest became contested sites  for opposing groups claiming to represent the revolution, and sexual violence became part of these clashes.  On the level of political discourse, Morsi’s regime further alienated many women’s rights activists by their response to a UN declaration that called for an end to violence against women, which the Muslim Brotherhood to which Morsi was aligned claimed would lead to “a disintegration of society.”

The citizen initiative Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment criticised Morsi’s government for failing to improve the criminal justice system so that the increasing numbers of sexual harassment and assaults could be properly prosecuted, and documented that the police response to reports of harassment and assaults was frequently apathetic.  

In November 2012, President Morsi gave himself controversial new Presidential ‘powers’ in order to push through the troubled post-revolutionary constitution, which many civil society groups saw as too ‘Islamist’ in content, and the constitution drafting process as insufficiently inclusive.  This move led to widespread protests in urban areas, and clashes between the military and riot police on the one hand, and organised groups of Morsi supporters, and those protesting against Morsi’s move and the new constitution on the other.  By December these clashes had grown deadly, and Egyptian human rights organisations documented sexual assaults committed by riot police, and by civilian Muslim Brotherhood supporters who appeared to be targeting ‘enemy’ women, in an attempt to drive them away from demonstrations. 

In December 2012, academic Zoe Holman documented the arguments made by civil society activists that there was state complicity in sexual assaults under both the SCAF and Morsi periods, signified by the coordinated nature of the assaults, in which women were surrounded by men moving together as if in a practiced tactic to isolate and assault the woman.  Indicative of the prevalence of sexual violence in the post-revolutionary period, a UN report was published in April 2013, calling on Egyptian authorities to address sexual violence as a matter of urgency, and claiming that 99.3 percent of women and girls had been subjected to sexual harassment.

Mohammad Morsi’s regime never recovered from the decisions me made in late 2012 to grant himself extra constitutional ‘powers’. Tensions increased between pro- and anti-Morsi supporters, and women’s bodies were frequently on the front line of these clashes.  On January 25 2013, the second anniversary of the fall of Mubarak, Tahrir Bodyguard and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment documented twenty-five gang rapes or gang sexual assaults on women at demonstrations, including a sexual assault of the Egyptian journalist Hania Moheeb.  Moheeb maintained that she was assaulted on the basis of both her profession and for her opposition to the Islamist government’s actions.  Yet shortly afterwards, in February 2013, Egypt’s Shura Council’s ‘Human Rights Committee’ issued a statement saying that women must “bear the responsibility” for harassment and assaults if they attend protests in Tahrir Square.

The downfall of Morsi and advent of Sisi: sexual violence as political tool 

As anger at President Morsi increased, so did political violence: civilian and often secular protests against Morsi calling for a ‘second revolution’ coalesced into the popular Tamarod movement, which claimed to have collected 22 million signatures demanding Morsi step down as President.  As the popular protest gathered momentum, the armed turned against Morsi in a move that was interpreted variously as a ‘restoration’ of the revolution after Morsi’s alienating and undemocratic 2012 Presidential ‘decree’ – or as a coup d’etat.  In the weeks that followed, as the army reclaimed control, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood staged a protest in Rabaa Al-Adewiya that ended in what Human Rights Watch has documented – in a report released, despite the protests of al-Sisi’s government, one year later in August 2014 – as a massacre of at least 800 and up to 1,100 people. 

Citizen organisations working against sexual violence documented gender-based violence against women through the June-August 2013 period committed by both Morsi supporters and the army, although in the volatility of Morsi’s removal from power documentation became more difficult and contested, as both ‘sides’ accused the other of acts of violence. 

Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment documented 91 sexual assaults on women in a four day period in the week after Morsi was removed from power, while Human Rights Watch reported that perpetrators of sexual violence had impunity to commit crimes while rule of law broke down during the chaos of Morsi’s forcible removal from office.

After President Morsi was removed from power, a three month curfew followed, with increased ‘security presence’ on the streets.  The interim President Adly Mansour – chosen by the leader of the armed forces, Sisi – approved a law that, for the first time, specifically defined and prohibited sexual harassment.  Women’s rights campaigners, however, argued that the law did not go far enough in facilitating the prosecution of sexual assaults and harassment, particularly through the law’s stipulation that a woman must bring two ‘witnesses’ with them when reporting the assault, which is particularly problematic given the extensively-documented high levels of social acceptance of sexual harassment amongst men in Egypt. 

Academics working on gender in Egypt have noted that ‘sexual violence’ became a politicised subject for the post-Morsi powers to criticise the Muslim Brotherhood, ignoring the fact that state actors including the police and military had been responsible for, and negligent in responding to, sexual violence in the post-revolutionary period.

Sisi assumed the powers of President in June 2014 after an election in which he claimed a landslide victory, but which was criticised by international election monitors.  Under Sisi’s Presidency, the issue of sexual harassment and assault has changed its contours: the introduction of a new law restricting public protest – although itself a source of protest by some activists – means mass movement of citizens in public space no longer occurs in the same manner it did during the 2011 revolution. 

Nonetheless, sexual assaults continue to occur at public gatherings: at a celebration for Sisi’s inauguration in June 2014, at least five women were assaulted, with one assault caught on video causing widespread outrage as it went viral online.   Sisi made a point of visiting the woman who was assaulted while she was in hospital, and made a public commitment to tackling impunity towards sexual violence and harassment in Egypt.  But women’s rights campaigners and civil society activists have expressed skepticism at Sisi’s adoption of the cause of ‘stopping sexual violence’. 

Firstly, it has been noted that Sisi has politicised the issue to imply that the sexual violence has solely been perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood during the post-revolutionary period since 2011, rather than an epidemic in which the police, the military, and the judiciary (through widespread failure and willingness to prosecute) have all been complicit.  Secondly, women’s rights campaigners note that it was Sisi himself who justified the forced ‘virginity tests’ when he was head of military intelligence during the post-Mubarak SCAF period in 2011. 

Thirdly, there have been allegations that, since the overthrow of President Morsi in 2013 and Sisi’s rise to power, women affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood have been targeted for ideological reasons, and subjected to forced virginity tests.  As Egyptian writer and activist Mona Eltahawy wrote in the New York Times in June 2014, “it does not matter where you stand on Egypt’s political spectrum: if you are a woman, your body is not safe.”

The law introduced under Mansour that criminalised sexual harassment for the first time, was criticised by activists such as the ‘I Saw Harassment’ campaign, for not going far enough in its sanctions against harassment, and not being practicable.  In another sense, activists are more concerned by who will be prosecuted under the new law: namely, that it will be deployed to make sexual harassment and sexual assaults ‘apolitical’, by punishing the crime when it is committed by civilians but not providing oversight to ensure apparatus of the state such as the police and the military do not, themselves, also commit sexual violence and harassment. 

The protest law and the end of the revolution

With the new anti-protest law, the mass mobilisations in public space that marked the revolutionary period are over, and this was arguably one of the conditions that contributed to the surge of harassment and assaults against women to ‘epidemic’ levels.  Such an argument, however, cannot be utilised – as it has been by al-Sisi’s supporters – to ‘justify’ the repressive protest law on the argument that it has led to a decrease in sexual violence in public demonstrations.

Preoccupied as al-Sisi’s Presidency is with its clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood (although secular activists, and journalists, have of course not escaped his wrath either), it seems unlikely that the government will move beyond the appropriation and instrumentalisation of the issue of ‘violence against women’ to smear its opponents, and instead bring in comprehensive measures that both address violence against women as a whole and allow those who have experienced sexual violence in the post-revolutionary (2011-2014) period to access meaningful justice. 

Yet unless adequate institutional and structural change can be brought about in which sexual harassment and sexual violence is fully recognised, combatted, and prosecuted, the phenomenon will continue to mark Egypt’s post-Mubarak era, long after the optimism of the 2011 revolution has faded.

This is an edited version of a paper the author first wrote for an ongoing project at Chr. Michelsen Institute in September 2014.

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