Analysis

Egyptian Women Suffer the Government's Social Media Hypocrisy

Egypt doesn't do much to protect women who have been raped or sexually harassed, but wakes up when young women appear on TikTok videos and imprisons them

Zvi Bar'el
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File photo: Egyptian women protest sexual harrassment, Cairo, February 2013.
File photo: Egyptian women protest sexual harrassment, Cairo, February 2013.Credit: AFP
Zvi Bar'el

“I know that you have economic problems. I created an agency for that and I want only girls in the group. No guys. If you get to know people, develop respectful and pleasant relationships. Everything has a price in accordance with the number of views. You can earn between 36 and 2,000 and 3,000 dollars,” wrote Hanin Hossam on her TikTok account.

Hossam, an archeology student at Cairo University, was forced to pay a high price herself. She couldn’t have imagined that the video she posted in April on TikTok, in which she’s seen dressed provocatively and wearing a red hijab, would lead her into court, where she was sentenced in July to two years’ imprisonment and fined 300,000 Egyptian pounds ($18,700). Egyptian journalists who happened upon her clip hurried to publicize the “abomination,” and demanded that she be prosecuted for pimping.

The indictment wasn’t long in coming and it states, among other things, that Hossam “dealt in human trafficking and undermined the values of Egyptian society for material benefit.” In May Moda al-Adham, another TikTok and Instagram influencer with some 2 million followers, was arrested on the same charges and given a similar sentence.

Unlike in the United States, where President Donald Trump wants to halt the activity of the popular Chinese app, Egypt isn’t planning to take it that far. It will “suffice” with prosecuting anyone who uses it “improperly” and thus undermines the country’s moral values, as interpreted by the courts.

These court decisions, the first of their kind, generated a public storm over the hypocrisy of the judicial system and the regime on the grounds that neither do much to protect women who have been raped or sexually harassed, but wake up when young women appear on TikTok videos and imprison them “as if it were the Middle Ages,” as one Egyptian commentator put it.

A shocking example of this was the case known as the Fairmont Incident. This was a horrific gang rape committed in the Fairmont Nile City Hotel in Cairo in 2014 by Ahmad Bassam Zaki, a young man from a well-connected family and a former student at the American University in Cairo, along with six of his friends. Several women, under the influence of a date-rape drug, were victims of lengthy abuse without any of the perpetrators being prosecuted.

Six years later, the prosecution was shocked by explicit posts on a Twitter account bearing the name ASSAULT_POLICE in which one of the rape victims gave a detailed account of the incident and even named her rapist. The government hastened to erase the account, but there immediately appeared a new Twitter account called “Fairmont Crime,” and an Instagram account named “Gang Rapists of Cairo,” which attracted tens of thousands of followers and on which pictures of the suspects were posted, with each picture bearing the caption, “Rapist.” It was the first time that accusations were made online against specific criminals with their names and pictures.

Combination photo showing videos by Haneen Hassam (left) and Mowada al-Adham, July 29, 2020.
Combination photo showing videos by Haneen Hassam (left) and Mowada al-Adham, July 29, 2020.Credit: AFP

Following the revelations, which included a demand that the government prosecute the suspects, the prosecution arrested the main suspect, Zaki, who denied any involvement in the incident and was released after being briefly questioned.

But the controversy did not fade. There were numerous additional posts about the events on social media, the hotel announced that it would cooperate with the investigation, and the police were compelled to rearrest Zaki and file an indictment against him. Meanwhile, the owners of the Twitter account reported that they were receiving threatening phone calls. The complainants, however, got thousands of supportive posts from both men and women, and invited any woman who had been raped or sexually harassed to tell their story online and expose the perpetrators.

These posts represent a possible breakthrough in the battle against rape and sexual harassment in Egypt, which until now had been kept hidden out of shame, fear or a lack of police interest. Women who in the past had tried to report violence against them to the police were treated insultingly; at best the police would suggest they come to a compromise with the rapist and his family, while at worst they were accused of bringing it on themselves, with “provocative” behavior or “immodest” dress.

Egyptian law was changed in 2014, following hundreds of instances of sexual harassment, and the punishment for such violations includes a lengthy prison term and substantial fine. This was because Egypt had been labeled a country that was dangerous for women, after various reports by international human rights agencies told of numerous cases in which the authorities had done nothing to uproot or halt this shameful phenomenon, and Egypt wanted to remove this stain, at least declaratively. But it turns out that the authorities prefer to harass those they define as internet criminals, like the TikTok women, over arresting and questioning a rapist.

A woman looks at the Instagram page reporting allegations of sexual harassment, Cairo, July 15, 2020.
A woman looks at the Instagram page reporting allegations of sexual harassment, Cairo, July 15, 2020.Credit: AFP

Taking pride in a law against sexual harassment doesn’t exactly deliver the goods. Many women wouldn’t dare violate social codes and report harassment, especially in rural areas, because in many cases the harassers are relatives or neighbors, and pressing charges would put the family of the complainant at risk of being ostracized or worse. Social media is now the preferred channel for conducting the campaign against sexual harassment, and it has indeed led to a revolution in terms of women getting up the guts to publicize their pain, though it still hasn’t resolved the issue of punishment.

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