Sisi victory celebrations marred by sexual assaults in Tahrir Square

Amid raucous nighttime celebrations marking Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's inauguration, several women were sexually assaulted. Their cases could test Egypt's vows to curb such violence. 

Thomas Hartwell/AP
Supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi celebrate his inauguration in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Sunday, June 8, 2014.

As fireworks sparkled over Tahrir Square to celebrate Egypt's newest leader, at least four women were violently assaulted in the crowd below.

Video footage shows a 19-year-old student, naked, bloodied, and repeatedly mobbed, as police struggled to move her to the safety of an ambulance. According to a local monitoring group, at least three other women were taken to the hospital Sunday night for treatment after tens of thousands gathered in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square to celebrate the victory of newly inaugurated President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The heartland of Egypt's 2011 revolution has become a place where women fear to gather at night. Amid a climate of impunity, an estimated 250 women have been subjected to mob sexual harassment or assaults during demonstrations since November 2012. Editor's note: This sentence has been revised to reflect new information on the number of women.

"After early 2013, I went from walking around Tahrir till the early hours of the morning on my own to refusing to enter the square without at least two men with me," recalls Suzee, who writes the blog SuzeeInTheCity and asks to be identified by only her first name because of security concerns. “These stories have permanently embedded themselves into my psyche that I, as a woman, am no longer safe in Tahrir or any public space that includes and encourages mob violence.”

In Egypt, sexual harassment is seemingly intractable, and police have been unwilling to treat it as a serious problem. According to the UN, more than 99 percent of hundreds of women surveyed reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, ranging from minor harassment to rape.

There has been some effort to curtail it. 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.

In an unusual turn, police arrested seven men in connection with the Sunday night attacks, although it is unclear whether they were linked to the student’s assault. But although the police intervened in attacks on Sunday, eyewitnesses say they were ill-prepared to deal with the situation. Hours earlier, police had dismantled key security barriers and many had retired for the day.

“I saw young officers doing their best, but there was no effort on the macro level, despite the fact that they know these incidents happen,” said Mohamed al-Habibi, who witnessed the assault on the student.

During the revelry that accompanied former President Mohamed Morsi's ouster last summer, Egyptian rights groups reported that mobs sexually assaulted and in some cases raped at least 91 women in the square over four days.

Some local journalists say they have faced pressure to show the Tahrir celebrations in a positive light -- press freedom is fragile in Egypt today and those who portray its power brokers in a bad light face particular scrutiny.

When reporter Samar Negida announced the harassment live on Egyptian television Tahrir TV, the anchor laughed, saying: “[It’s] because they are happy,” she said of the violence.

Two local journalists, speaking to The Christian Science Monitor on condition of anonymity, said they were encouraged to cover the demonstrations positively. One said that their bosses and families received phone calls complaining about previous coverage.

“This harassment did not look good,” said one reporter, adding that Egyptian media outlets are often staffed by people who have been working there since the Mubarak era, and who are therefore well versed in the art of self-censorship. 

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