Some Egyptians show their deepest sympathy and voice their anguish openly while others seize the opportunity to lay the blame for the harrowing incident of mob sexual harassment in Tahrir Square on the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the comment of an Egyptian TV host on “isolated cases of sexual harassment” during the celebrations of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s inauguration in Tahrir Square is by any estimation the most shocking of all.
On June 9, a blurry video showing a mass sexual assault on a nearly naked woman during Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s presidential inauguration celebrations went viral on YouTube. The amateur video, most probably taken with a low-resolution mobile camera, portrays a chaotic scene in which a blood-stained naked woman limps away with the help of a police officer grasping a gun in his hand and struggling against a mob of men to rescue her. The woman barely made it to a nearby ambulance, which took her to hospital.
On the same day, the Interior Ministry said in a statement that the police had arrested seven suspected men, aged 15 to 49, for sexual harassment. However, according to The New York Times, an Interior Ministry spokesman said he couldn’t tell whether the arrests were related to the mob assault seen in the aforementioned video or not.
Needless to say, the withering irony within this horrendous incident lies in the fact that neither the government nor the former army chief himself, who has received fervent support mostly from women, have responded properly to this excruciating scene. El Sisi urged the Interior Minister to act promptly to enforce the law to fend off the “phenomena” of sexual harassment, not to mention to commend the police officer who rescued the female victim.
Nevertheless, another video shows a female news anchor on a private TV channel, Al-Tahrir, saying cheerfully that the attackers were “just having a good time.” This struck a nerve and has incited outrage on Egypt’s different social networks.
Ms Maha Bahnassy, the anchorwoman, later apologised for her comment, but only after receiving reports about women being sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square on the eve of El Sisi’s inauguration. She justified her actions by saying that she was merely commenting to her guests in the studio, unaware that her microphone was on. The correspondent, Samar Negida, whom Ms Bahnassy was corresponding with at the time, deemed this explanation “unacceptable” in a Tweet.
“I don't understand what difference it makes, whether the anchor was talking to me or to a guest?! Does it change anything? …The apology Maha Bahnasy just issued is unacceptable, because she had said she thought the information I was providing was based on ‘rumours’, questioning my credibility,” Ms Negida said in two different Tweets.
By and large, what made the incident even worse were the comments of some Egyptian prominent figures. Hoda Badran, the head of the Egyptian Feminist Union, told a TV anchor that the mob sexual assaults in Tahrir Square, which included at least five women, were merely the work of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Similarly, the Egyptian human rights activist Dalia Ziada, described the-then sexual assaults as being “deliberate” and “purposeful”. She even avowedly accused the Muslim Brotherhood in her Tweets by saying: “I blame the (Muslim) Brotherhood for the harassment acts that occurred in Tahrir Square yesterday, as this wasn’t the first gathering of both men and women together in the Square. Same rallies held all over the last year, and no sexual harassment incident had been reported. In the protests that proceeded June 30, the (Muslim) Brotherhood did something like this. Remember the memorable scene of the last year where a woman had her clothes stripped off in a similar way?”
It’s of paramount importance to say that no evidence has been given to indicate that Muslim Brotherhood members were involved in these heinous acts. However, there is a wilful belief among some Egyptian liberals and elites that the banned Muslim Brotherhood group is the root of all evil.
Ironically enough, the egregious incident came a week after the enactment of a law which criminalises sexual harassment. According to this law, any person who sexually harasses a man or a woman in public or private will face up to five years in prison and a maximum fine of 50,000 EGP ($6,990).
Many may pin high hopes on El Sisi to resolve the issue of frequent assaults on women in public spaces once and for all, especially since he has regularly emphasised his utter respect and support for Egypt’s women. He even enunciated that he will resort to religious institutions, schools and media to raise awareness against sexual harassment.
Meanwhile, others may be sceptical of his potential role in warding off this plague from ruining Egyptian society, ever since he defended the military’s use of forced “virginity tests” on female detainees in 2011 when he was an army general. The latter act was justified to protect the soldiers from rape accusations and to make sure that they were respectable women, seeing that they “are not like your daughters or mine”, as Sisi referred to the women in Tahrir Square.
Egypt’s patriarchal culture should be blamed for violence against women. The police's inability to provide much-needed security for women in large gatherings, in addition to their failure to combat sexual violence, makes them as guilty as the society itself for sexual harassment. It is worth noting that a 2013 United Nations report entitled "Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women" found that 99.3% of Egyptian women have suffered from sexual harassment in the country, while 91.5 percent have experienced unwelcome physical contact.
Unfortunately, this means that a long battle lies ahead and people need to start taking responsibility and stop trying to find scapegoats, whether it’s the Muslim Brotherhood, the culture, women’s clothing’s, etc… We all need to stand side by side and put an end to this.