North Africa, West Asia

Egypt: no country for all women

Recent events in Egypt show how the country’s mistreatment of women is part of a system that uses violence against women to protect its inequalities.

Wael Eskandar
24 July 2020, 12.01am
Graffiti in Egypt. 30 August 2012
Picture by Gigi Ibrahim / (CC BY 2.0)

Three major events that took place recently shed a light on the position of women in Egypt. Though they might seem like disconnected incidents, they help complete a picture. The first is the case of Ahmed Bassam Zaki, the son of an elite family, accused of sexual assault with over a hundred stories supporting these accusations and attesting to his behavior. His accusers are from the American University in Cairo (AUC) and the American International School (AIS).

However, the recent measures taken by Egypt’s public prosecutor in the case of Zaki should not be celebrated too soon as a triumph for women’s rights but rather they might be simply a public relations tactic at a time when women are facing growing levels of violence.

The second event is the wave of arrests that have been happening since April 2020 with at least nine women to date. The women were active on social media platform Tik Tok and were arrested on charges of ‘violating society’s moral norms’.

The third is the physical assault of three women activists. Laila Souief, mother of imprisoned activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, and his two sisters, Mona Seif and Sanaa Seif were assaulted and mugged by a group of women outside Tora prison as the prison security watched. The three activists were there asking for a letter from Alaa to ensure his safety during the coronavirus outbreak.

These three events show that there is no change in how the state views women, but more importantly they show how class, power and politics, determine how society values women and their access to justice and rule of law in Egypt.

Not all women

In the case of Zaki, Egypt’s public prosecutor took action by arresting him and releasing statements that stood in support of the women coming forward. The National Council for Women issued a statement of gratitude and appreciation to the public prosecutor for doing the bare minimum and arresting the accused, a sentiment shared by many among Egypt’s upper middle class.

At first glance, the public prosecutor seems to offer victims of Zaki’s assaults assurances that they will not be blamed for coming forward (along with a moral lesson in parenting and the dangers of social media).

“You’re not here to convince us of your story. Even if you were mid-intercourse with this person and you decided you didn’t want to do it anymore and he forced you to keep going, that’s still rape,” the prosecutor is reported to have told one of the victims.

But this message is not for all women.

The story of Ahmed Bassam Zaki presented itself as an opportunity to whitewash the state’s violence against women

This is a message that is exclusive to specific women of a certain class assaulted by a sexual predator who was exposed due to the brave efforts of dozens of young women who came forward with their stories and amplified others’. This doesn’t apply to women who come from different social backgrounds, such as from less privileged lower middle class women for instance who are not even allowed to post videos on Tik Tok.

One case in point is that of Menna Abdel Aziz who, after broadcasting a video alleging she was raped and filmed, was later arrested herself instead of being summoned for testimony and her alleged rapist arrested.

In fact, another woman, Hadeer El Hadi was arrested and detained just one day after the public prosecutor was hailed for the arrest of Zaki.

It is not just about social class but also about political disposition. For example, women who belong to political opposition are granted no protection. Instead, assaults against them are justified. This was the case for Laila, Mona and Sanaa. A day after they were attacked, they went to the prosecutor’s office to file a complaint against their assailants. Instead of offering protection to the women, Sanaa, still suffering from injuries sustained from the attack, was abducted by plain clothed men outside the public prosecutor’s office only to reappear in state security.

The public prosecutor issued a statement justifying the kidnapping rather than condemning the behavior. The same inaction was true when activist Esraa Abdel Fattah was kidnapped and tortured by Egyptian security.

At the time of writing, Sanaa remains locked up in the notorious pre-trial detentions which have become the Egyptian regime’s favorite flavor of imprisonment without due process. Many women like Mahienour El-Massry, Solafa Magdy and others have been arrested having committed no crimes, and remain in jail.

The inaction of public prosecution to the injustice inflicted upon Sanaa Seif reflects complicity that has gone beyond the usual. That is why the story of Ahmed Bassam Zaki presented itself as an opportunity to whitewash the state’s violence against women - an opportunity that was fully seized and capitalized on.

Whitewashing a system

An important aspect of Zaki’s crimes is that they were against women of his own class; daughters to very wealthy and powerful people. This is perhaps best exemplified by a presenter on Al Kahera Wal Nas, a channel loyal to the Egyptian regime, when he referred to Ahmed Zaki’s victims as banatna, which can be translated to ‘our daughters’ or ‘our girls’.

Zaki was not only instrumentalized to whitewash the public prosecutor’s shameful record against women activists, but scapegoating him served to alleviate pressure off elite institutions like the AIS and the AUC, who not only failed to act, but offered Zaki protection.

AIS went so far as to protect Zaki at the time accusations were made against him, a crime not just against the girls he already assaulted but against the women he would later assault in the American University in Cairo.

In contrast, almost every published news item about the arrested Tik Tok women highlighted sexually provocative poses featuring their faces

According to Egyptian Streets, “AIS chose to take no punitive action against Zaki as he was only days from graduation. Instead, Zaki was merely spoken to and given a warning, while girls at AIS were warned of the dangers of social media and sending photos of themselves and engaging in sexual contact.”

The AUC did not fare much better. Their statement simply reads that they do not want to be held accountable for the time he was attending. Ahmed’s father, Bassam Zaki, held a distinguished position in Fiber Misr, a large technology company with close ties to the government. Based on its administration’s recent history, it has become nearly inconceivable that the AUC did not cozy up to power when it came knocking on its door while trying to retain that thin false veneer of morality.

Double standards

Still, Zaki is offered protection. His face was initially blurred in state loyalist media, even the presenter who coined the phrase ‘our daughters’ refused to have him named or his image shown. In contrast, almost every published news item about the arrested Tik Tok women highlighted sexually provocative poses featuring their faces.

If we take it a step further, I cannot imagine Zaki’s house being stormed by plain clothed police, or that he would be abducted and disappeared for a few hours before his family found out where he was. Nor can I imagine mistreatment or him sleeping in a cell along with countless others allotted a small space as wide as ‘a hand span and a fist’ as is customary for political prisoners.

image 1.jpg
Picture by Roula Abouzeid / Edited by Wael Eskandar. All rights reserved.

Sculpture made with wood in prison by satirist Shady Abou Zeid who has been locked up for over two years in pretrial detention without interrogation. Titled 'A Hand Span and a Fist', it represents the space, shared by cockroaches, each prisoner has for sleeping inside their shared cell.

Despite his crimes, Zaki remains humanized. Upon his arrest he was given four days of detention pending investigation, instead of the fifteen reserved for opposition. Furthermore, he was even interrogated and asked questions, something that political prisoners have yet to experience. He will go through a humane court system that understands that even a criminal has the right not to be mistreated. But that is only reserved for the elite who are not in opposition to the regime.

Offending patriarchy

The complicity against women is not reserved to state and private institutions. There is a great portion of society that holds these patriarchal views. For example, support for the arrest of the women posting on Tik Tok, was significantly large as indicated by browsing through social media and Facebook groups , even though the legal premise for which they were arrested is shady, at best. They are arrested for ‘violating society’s moral norms’ by a state that historically used sexual assaults on women as a weapon.

The underlying reason for their arrest however, reflect a deeper patriarchal view, more so than just the conservative nature of society. The women arrested on Tik Tok have attempted to monetize their status as celebrities with a huge following on the platform. The content they provide is not much different than that on Youtube which can also be monetized. But the idea that these women rely on their femininity and at times sexual provocation through what they wear was offensive not just to parts of society but to the government as well.

Accountability must include the countless acts of harassment on the streets, at work and at home among family members. The answer is not in finding exceptional justice for the few that can attain it

They would be able to establish celebrity, influence and financial autonomy independent of the state’s patriarchal oversight. For the state it is equivalent to prostitution, which is how it was reported in most news. This point was explicitly made by the public prosecution in a communique on social media.

What measure of justice?

While many have praised the handling of the case of Ahmed Zaki and consider the introduction of a bill to protect victims’ identities a win, it may be shortsighted to believe that it will be enacted and implemented without further pressure to fight the systemic marginalization of women. By looking at these events collectively, it becomes clear that the status of women continues to be seen through the prism of class, politics and power, where laws are applied very selectively.

It has been the state’s policy to clamp down on independent media and their resources, thereby hindering influence. Women of a lower social class than AUC ‘daughters’ are a low hanging fruit to take down, with the blessing of a conservative society. Meanwhile, issues like spousal rape or sexual harassment whether on the street, at the workplace, or even by security bodies remain off the table.

Women find no adequate avenues to voice their complaints, and no means to address injustices even when they can prove them. The public testimonies, allegations and tribunals are but the overflow of the countless grievances bottled up and contained by society, institutions and the state.

Accountability must include the countless acts of harassment on the streets, at work and at home among family members. The answer is not in finding exceptional justice for the few that can attain it. The measure will always be what rights we can guarantee to the weakest among us, not the strongest.

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