Why YouTube won't remove Egyptian sexual assault video

Egypt arrested 13 men in connection with sexual assaults. But Egyptian President Sissi also asked YouTube to remove a video showing a woman being sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square. Why YouTube has refused.

REUTERS/The Egyptian Presidency/Handout via Reuters
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi presents flowers to a woman who was sexually assaulted by a mob during celebrations marking his inauguration, at a hospital in Cairo June 11, 2014.

YouTube has refused to remove a video showing an Egyptian woman being sexually assaulted.

That's a difficult call, but probably the right one.

Imagine the negative global reaction if YouTube - which is owned by Google, Inc. - had acquiesced to Egyptian officials. YouTube would have been accused of helping to cover up Egypt's sexual assault problem: An estimated 250 women have  been subjected to mob sexual harassment or assaults during demonstrations in Tahrir Square since November 2012.

On Saturday, Egyptian officials announced that 13 men will be tried for assaulting at least three women before and during celebrations in Tahrir Square after Sunday's inauguration of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Egypt's state news agency MENA said that men are charged with kidnapping, assault, theft, torture, attempted murder, and rape. The charges carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. 

But the news agency also said that the prosecutor was investigating the person who shot and uploaded the video of the attack, calling it a "violation of public decency."

During a televised visit to the woman shown being attacked in the YouTube video, President Sisi promised to have the video taken down: "I have come to tell you and every Egyptian woman that I am sorry. I am apologizing to every Egyptian woman."

YouTube has reportedly taken down copies of the video in which the woman can be identified. But because YouTube officials consider the attack newsworthy, it has left up versions that blur her image. YouTube asks viewers who want to watch the assault to verify that they are at least 18 years old.

"We respect an individual's right to privacy and have always removed videos entirely where there is a privacy complaint and an individual is clearly identifiable," YouTube said in a statement.

The video of the attack has also raise anew this question: What's Egypt doing about sexual assaults on women?  A recent Thomson Reuters Foundation survey said Egypt was ranked 22nd – below Iraq and Saudi Arabia – in polling on 22 Arab states’ treatment of women, according to the Independent.

The arrest and trial of 13 men in this attack may be an important signal of Egypt beginning to address this issue.

As one of his final acts in office, outgoing President Adly Mansour issued a law making harassment a criminal offense. It is now punishable by a minimum six-month jail term and a fine worth 3,000 Egyptian pounds ($419) – with increased penalties for repeat offenders, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

The attacks in Egypt come as global efforts grow to confront rape during times of warfare.

This past week, a Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, was hosted in London by the UK government.The summit, which brought together representatives from more than 100 countries, had four goals:

1) End the culture of impunity by agreeing on an international protocol for documenting and investigating sexual violence in conflict zones.

2) Take practical steps to protect women, including by training soldiers and peacekeepers,

3) Increase support for survivors and human rights activists,

4) Achieve a "seismic shift" in attitudes so that the problem is recognized and tackled globally.

"We must send a message around the world that there is no disgrace in being a survivor of sexual violence -- that the shame is on the aggressor," said Angelina Jolie, a UN Special Envoy for refugees and keynote speaker at the conference,

“We need to shatter the culture of impunity and make justice the norm, not the exception, for these crimes,” says Jolie, who took up this cause after producing a film, “The Land of Blood and Honey,” about sexual violence during the Bosnian conflict.

The question Egyptian officials now face: Will Egypt take steps to "shatter the culture of impunity and make justice the norm?"

 The trial of the 13 men arrested will be closely watched.

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