The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was held last week in London, the largest gathering to ever happen on the subject. Co-chaired by the UK foreign secretary William Hague and UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie, the summit gathered delegations from 129 countries, including 79 ministers. This gathering aimed at bringing the international community together to agree on actions to “end the use of rape as a weapon of war and the culture of impunity for those who commit these crimes”, as per the statement.
Despite Egypt being a signatory to the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, launched in September 2013, there was no Egyptian government delegation in the summit – not one single person.
“We therefore pledge to do more to raise awareness of these crimes, to challenge the impunity that exists and to hold perpetrators to account, to provide better support to victims, and to support both national and international efforts to build the capacity to prevent and respond to sexual violence in conflict,” is only part of a long list of “pledges” that Egypt signed on last year.
It made these pledges, yes, but sent no one to the largest ever gathering on the topic despite the chronic crisis of sexual assault in the country.
During the summit, and after the many cases of sexual assault that occurred in Tahrir Square while people were celebrating Sisi’s presidential win, a law criminalising sexual harassment was passed, making it a crime punishable by up to five years in prison and fines ranging from $400 to $7,000.
“That’s a good step!” everyone keeps saying. Alright; let’s review the many “good steps” our government has taken over the past three years regarding this crisis, and never succeeded in moving forward.
– In April 2011, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the then rulers of the country following Mubarak’s ouster, issued a decree (11/2011) amending provisions in the penal code (58/1937) to increase penalties for various forms of sexual violence. These penalties ranged from death sentences for rapists to at least seven years of hard labour for sexual assault criminals.
We have not yet seen this decree take effect.
– In October 2012, former prime minister Hisham Qandil strongly condemned attacks on women that occurred during Eid Al Adha celebrations in downtown Cairo. Ousted president Mohamed Morsi acknowledged the epidemic of sexual harassment, ordering the interior minister to investigate the assaults reported, reaching 735 complaints in four days. Morsi also announced a new legislation to combat sexual harassment and issued a statement “stressing the need to fight all phenomena of moral chaos and abuses, especially harassment in Egyptian streets.”
We saw no fight against harassment nor was his new law ratified.
– In May 2013, several women’s rights organisations, along with representatives from the government, outlined measures to improve the justice system’s response to sexual violence crimes. Indeed, a lot was said: The Ministry of justice and the Public Prosecution office both said that they are training their employees to handle such crimes and reports. They also both said they established “Women’s Issues” units to study the laws and their implementation. The Ministry of Interior (which was under the current minister) announced the establishment of the “Department for monitoring crimes of violence against women”, and a hotline for women to report the cases without even having to go file a complaint at police stations. They said the new department would include female police officers, psychologists and social workers to work with the victims. They went as far as announcing that the ministry would “provide constant patrols in front of schools and on the streets to protect women from harassment”.
Great plan…that never saw the light!
– In September 2013, the MOI’s “unit” signed a cooperation protocol with the state’s National Council for Women to facilitate filing complaints from females affected by violence.
None of these laws took effect, nor the interior ministry’s unit announced a mandate or launched a website or publicised their existence in any manner. Several meetings and agreements followed, and again, we never witnessed any positive development… only negative ones.
After all these brilliant “steps” by the government, Human Rights Watch documented at least 91 sexual assault cases in Tahrir Square over only four days (30 June – 3 July 2013). The failure of the government to implement its own decisions and laws is very frustrating, especially since it is difficult to take their recent “decisions” seriously.
The interior ministry itself does not have such a clean track record when it comes to sexual harassment, as per several documented cases starting from the Black Wednesday of 25 May 2005 when reports spread of police officers and security forces clearing the way for groups of men to sexually assault female reporters and activists during a protest against constitutional referendum. Women reported that police officers were watching as they were being assaulted and did not intervene. The African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights, after seven years of investigations, issued a verdict that the Egyptian government is to be blamed for this incident, and called for both a reopening of investigations and for compensation to be paid to the victims. Of course, the case has already been dropped in the Egyptian justice system and never reopened.
Another more recent documented incident is that of well-known writer Mona Eltahawy’s ordeal with the security forces in November 2011, in which she reported that “riot police officers beat me, broke my left arm and my right hand and sexually assaulted me; their supervising officer threatened me with gang rape.”
Since the sexual assault of Lara Logan in Tahrir Square on 11 February 2011, organised sexual violence has been systematic against female reporters and activists present in protests. Several women’s rights organisations have blamed the government and security forces of carrying out or facilitating such attacks. Nazra’s report, issued in May 2013 and titled Sexual Assault and Rape in Tahrir Square and its Vicinity: A Compendium of Sources 2011 – 2013, said: “Mubarak’s regime started using sexual violence against female protesters in 2005… and today, the ruling political system is attempting to use the same tactic, beating the old regime in the ability to use this tactic by using organized and trained groups to perform revolting task”. The report was prepared by El-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, Nazra for Feminist Studies and New Woman Foundation, and signed by over 20 rights groups and 10 political parties.
It is quite difficult to believe that the police would offer any help, after such a track record. Even if we disregard testimonies from victims, the least we can say is that the police have failed to stop gang sexual assaults in Tahrir Square even though they were heavily present in the area and managed to arrest tens of protesters for several other reasons.
So far, the only initiatives that have been successful, despite their lack of manpower and funding, are the civil society groups that voluntarily go on the streets to defend women against sexual assault crimes, groups like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Harassmap.
But even those are not safe, as two of their bravest were arrested during an anti-sexual harassment protest last week, for carrying banners saying “We will not forget the Ministry of Interior’s sexual harassment”. Their charge was “insulting the police”.
Speaking out against police involvement in sexual violence is a crime, and video-taping assaults for public awareness is also a crime. The man who shot and uploaded the video of the latest Tahrir incident has an arrest warrant against him for “shooting and publishing an indecent video”.
We are happy though, that the criminals in that same incident are facing trials, but with all that, please excuse us for being sceptical.
Rana Allam is the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily News Egypt. Follow her on Twitter at @Run_Rana or email at email@example.com