Egypt's outgoing president on Thursday decreed sexual harassment a crime punishable by up to five years in prison, a much-anticipated move toward combating the abuse deeply rooted in this Mideast country.
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The decree was among several last-minute decisions by President Adly Mansour who is to hand over power on Sunday to president-elect, Egypt's former military chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.
The decree amends the country's current laws, which did not criminalize sexual harassment and only vaguely referred to such offenses as indecent assault.
In Egypt, violence against women in public space has grown over the past three years of turmoil since the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The decree says harassers face between six months to five years in prison, with harsher sentences reserved for offenders holding a position of power over their victims, like being a woman's superior at work or being armed with a weapon.
The decree also defines a sexual harasser as a person seeking to achieve "an interest of a sexual nature," according to presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi. Offenders would be prosecuted whether they commit harassment in public or in private, and repeat offenders would see their sentences doubled, Badawi said.
Along with the maximum five-year sentence, offenders would be fined up to 5,000 Egyptian pounds, or about $714, with the maximum fine reserved for harassers who use a weapon or pressure.
However, some activists voiced their disappointment with the new decree, saying the amendment remains "vague" and the punishment "insufficient" to combat the phenomenon.
The law does not explain how authorities are going to hold a harasser accountable. To report a harassment incident, police requires the victim to present the harasser and two witnesses, anti-sexual violence activist Janet Abdel el-Aleim told Al Arabiya News.
Last year, a UN report found that more than 99 percent of hundreds of women surveyed across Egypt reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, ranging from minor harassment to rape.
The breakdown in the police force in the wake of the 2011 uprising that ousted Mubarak left the streets in Egypt even more unsafe for women. Over the past three years, including under the year-long rule of Mubarak's successor, Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, there have also been multiple mass sexual assaults on women during political protests.
Initiatives to counter harassment also multiplied. Volunteer groups started escorting women, especially during political gatherings. Activists offered self-defense classes for women and social networking sites launched "name and shame" campaigns.
However, many say harassment will continue as long as Egypt's conservative Muslim society discriminates against women, accusing them of dressing immodestly and mixing with men in public and thus provoking harassment.