In early July, as Egypt was contending with a surge in coronavirus and sensitive negotiations with Ethiopia over a new dam on the Nile, an anonymous Instagram account was gaining in prominence.
Named Assault Police, it began publishing allegations of serial sexual harassment, assault and rape against Ahmad Bassam Zaki, a 21-year-old American University of Cairo student. The initial testimonies spurred dozens more.
The testimonies against the young man shocked the public because of his age and the severity of the accusations. Zaki tried to clear his record in voice notes sent to his friends, which they then shared. But more reports came in accusing him of blackmailing and intimidating his friends in exchange for sexual favors.
Over a hundred women and at least three young men came forward with allegations against Zaki, who was charged in September with sexually assaulting three minors as well as coercing another person into a sexual relationship through blackmail.
“It opened a serious wound,” said Azza Soliman, a human rights lawyer and the founder of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance in Cairo that took on the victims’ cases before the prosecution. “Ever since we started working with the victims in this case, we have received testimonies that are truly shocking.”
Though Cairo is known for pervasive sexual harassment, the graphic descriptions of the allegations and the uproar that followed shocked deeply conservative Egypt, spurring a societal reckoning over how such claims are handled and how victims of assault are treated. Many called for legal reforms aimed at protecting and encouraging women to come forward, with assurances that their allegations would be treated seriously.
But the growing imperative to believe and empower victims of sexual violence is running up against opposing cultural trends, halting what little progress has been achieved by women’s rights activists. Even though judges and officials now urge women to report cases of sexual assault, a growing number of highly publicized morality-related lawsuits against women is crippling to those who want to speak out about abuse.
In addition, prosecutors have mishandled recent cases of sexual assault involving members of the country’s elite, punishing witnesses and victims and smearing them in government-aligned media.
Nevertheless, the currents driving society in opposing directions led to a raging public debate that blends Western-style #MeToo issues with deeper questions of shame, public morality, and the place of women in public life.
These tensions were evident as Assault Police gained more followers online day by day and the allegations against Zaki mushroomed, but none of his alleged victims had yet filed official reports with the police or the prosecution.
The National Council of Women stepped in on July 3 and filed a report on behalf of Zaki’s alleged victims with Egypt’s prosecutor general, encouraging those affected to come forward while promising them safety and anonymity as well as psychological and legal support. Police investigations later said that Zaki, who hails from a rich family, regularly blackmailed his victims by claiming to have strong connections with the authorities that he could use in order to punish them if they spoke out.
On July 9, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly approved a legislative amendment to the criminal code to protect the identities of victims of harassment, rape and assault in court cases, a victory for women’s rights activists and lawyers who campaigned for the measure for years.
“I think that the state was pushed into taking action,” said Mozn Hassan, an activist and founder of Nazra for Feminist Studies, a women’s rights organization. “The wave was bigger than them.”
Hassan and other women’s rights defenders say there has been a visible shift in how society and the authorities have been tackling crimes of sexual violence. An epidemic of sexual harassment has increasingly been brought under the spotlight in recent years, particularly since the 2011 uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, during which several cases of assault on and off Tahrir Square, ground zero of the revolution, were highlighted.
“Women took stronger stances and started to break free with social stigma after 2011,” said Soliman. “Laws too were progressing, and even the attitude of the National Council for Women back then was different and trying to cope with the public demands to create more freedom and protection for women.”
But while the government outwardly encouraged women to come forward with progressive rhetoric, its response to individual cases has been fitful, at times blaming victims and even arresting witnesses in a case involving the country’s elite, even as it continued to enable so-called “morality” cases against women who are perceived as violating social norms.
Zaki’s case emboldened more women to speak up about other incidents that had been covered up in the intervening years. It prompted previous ones that were buried to be scrutinized, such as an alleged gang rape dating back to 2014 that took place at the Cairo Fairmont Hotel and resurfaced earlier this year as victims grew emboldened.An anonymous Instagram account, Gang Rapists of Cairo, was set up late July to lead the campaign against at least six alleged rapists in the case, who hailed from wealthy and powerful Cairene families. The names and photos of the suspects circulated on social media platforms for days.
The account claimed that seven men drugged a woman using GHB, a date rape drug, at a private party and accompanied her to a hotel room in the Fairmont where they raped her while she was unconscious. After they were done, they wrote their initials on her bottom.
The rapists filmed the entire incident from beginning to end and later circulated it among their acquaintances. The video was sent out to 70 to 80 people, according to Human Rights Watch.
The humiliating details, the audacity of the alleged rapists, and their confidence while carrying out the crime instigated a fresh uproar against them and rallied more support for anonymous victims.
In an Aug. 23 statement, the National Council of Women called on any victims and witnesses involved to file official reports, vowing to legally and physically support them and keep their identities hidden completely. Three women and a man went to the prosecutor’s office as witnesses, galvanized by the council’s call. But, within days, they were all arrested over debauchery and morality-related charges, among others. Prosecutors ordered the arrest of more people pending an investigation into the case, legal sources told New Lines.
In parallel with the rape investigation, a separate case against the witnesses rooted in morality-related allegations unfolded in public in an effort to intimidate and discredit them. The charges were based on personal photos and videos either confiscated from their phones after their detention, or leaked and circulated on social media outlets in an attempt to discredit them as witnesses, sources with knowledge of the cases said.
Media outlets affiliated with Egyptian security services launched a smear campaign against the witnesses, publishing personal photos and videos that show them in explicit clothing, dancing, and drinking at parties. The articles framed the party at the Fairmont as a “group sex party” that was organized by an “AIDS patient to perform consensual homosexual activities.”
Websites published private, sexually explicit images of the witnesses and others involved in the campaign to arrest the alleged rapists. A local news website published a photo of the rape victim but later removed it.
Other sexually explicit videos of the witnesses who came forward were circulated on multiple platforms and later removed. Articles were published implying that the Fairmont case was a “revenge campaign” orchestrated by two individuals, including one of the arrested women who had been married to one of the alleged rapists.
On Aug. 30, the prosecutor general announced that it had made a total of six arrests in relation to the case and ordered the temporary release of three of them after charging all six with “violating laws on morality” and “debauchery.” The three still in custody were referred to a government laboratory to undergo drug testing. Two of them were referred to forensic doctors for physical examination, although the prosecution’s statement did not state the purpose of the examination.
The contrast between the government’s public rhetoric encouraging victims of assault to come forward and the decision to prosecute the Fairmont witnesses stunned women’s rights activists, who described it as a “huge setback” in the battle for justice for victims of sexual violence. Social media users flooded the NCW’s Facebook page with complaints, blaming them for not protecting the very women they told to speak up.
“It started with solidarity with the survivor of the rape crime but then the witnesses turned out to be immoral women in the eyes of society, and hence had their credibility questioned as witnesses,” said Hassan, Nazra’s founder. “Suddenly we all were judging the girls because there are leaked videos showing them in parties and on beds. The state has to acknowledge a crime as a crime, not [articulate] a point of view about what these women do with their lives.”
A legal source involved in the case who requested anonymity confirmed that some of the charges pressed against one of the detained witnesses included “inciting lesbianism, drug use, and publishing false news.”
Lawyers for a number of witnesses turned down multiple requests for comments due to the sensitivity of the case.
“The victim and witnesses were treated as sluts, although they were promised protection,” said one of the campaigners calling for the release of the witnesses, who requested anonymity. “Even if they were prostitutes, we have to acknowledge that there was an assault.”
“Rape is rape,” the campaigner added.
But accusations of immorality and debauchery have a long history of being wielded as a bludgeon against individuals who push up against social red lines on issues such as sexuality or lead lifestyles that do not appeal to conservative segments of society.
Allegations of immorality targeting women in particular have become increasingly common in Egypt in recent years, under a controversial 2018 cybercrimes law that criminalizes acts that violate “Egyptian family values.”
Article 25 of the law states that “anyone who violates any of the family principles or values of Egyptian society or violates the sanctity of private life shall be punished by imprisonment for a period of no less than six months, and by a fine of no less than 50,000 pounds ($3,163) and not exceeding 100,000 pounds, or by one of these two penalties.”
The law does not define Egyptian family values, and its vagueness and broad mandate has allowed its use in multiple recent cases, including the detention of a number of women in recent months in what became known as the “TikTok girls case,” in reference to the social media platform popular with young people who share short, homemade videos.
On Sept. 15, Egypt’s economic court convened the trial of Hadeer El-Hady, a vlogger on the platform, who faces charges of “violating the values of the Egyptian family, violating public decency and inciting debauchery,” among others. She is one of at least nine women facing morality-related charges leveled by public prosecutors for their social media posts.
All are currently in jail awaiting trial.
Ashraf Farahat, a lawyer and the founder of the “Let it Get Cleaned” campaign on Facebook, the group that filed the official reports against the so-called TikTok girls, told New Lines that he and four other lawyers who work for him have filed at least 18 reports with the police against women who “violate public decency with immoral videos” on social media. Farahat and his partners at “Let it Get Cleaned” scour videos online looking for “criminal content” that violates what he described as Egyptian traditions, laws and values.
Farahat said he only aims to report content he deems inappropriate to authorities so that its creators are legally punished for their “immorality.” He said he began taking legal action against the TikTok girls out of “fear that they become role models for underaged children who might be tempted by fame and money” and lose their moral compass in the process.
Even a young woman wearing “a crop-top” violates public decency for Farahat. “This is not something that suits our culture,” he said.
Among those Farahat has persuaded the Egyptian government to target is social media influencer Haneen Hossam, a 20-year-old university student who was arrested after posting a video inviting her female followers to use another video-sharing platform, Likee. Hossam told her female followers on TikTok that they can earn money by making live videos for Likee.
In a statement, the prosecution said it considered her invite an “incitement for violating family values by forces of evil that seek to demolish the values and principles of society and steal its innocence and purity.” She was accused of “violating the values of the Egyptian family, inciting immorality, debauchery and the practice of vice.”
“Don’t girls fall victims of prostitution by abuse of their vulnerability and social need?” the prosecution asked.
“This is completely unacceptable,” said Farahat. “Who controls what these girls post? No woman would boost the views for simply appearing on a screen with nothing showing but her face. They have to add some suspense to attract more viewers, like showing a bit of skin or dressing explicitly.”
Another social media celebrity, Mawada al-Adham, was arrested May 24 pending her trial on charges of “violating family values” for posting “indecent” videos and creating and managing websites for that purpose. Al-Adham was asked to undergo a “virginity test” to determine whether she has ever had vaginal intercourse and refused, according to comments by her lawyer to the local press.
Both Hossam and al-Adham were sentenced to two years in prison and fined 300,000 pounds each. The lawyers appealed the rulings, but both women could face up to five years in prison if found guilty in the final verdict. Hossam’s charges also include human trafficking because she allgedly exploited her female followers for financial profit, an accusation that carries a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.
At least seven other women have been detained on similar charges, based on how they chose to appear on social media. Most of them posted videos of themselves while singing and dancing to popular songs.
Menna Abdelaziz, 17, was known for posting videos of her dancing to popular songs in explicit attire on TikTok. In one shocking video, however, Abdelaziz appeared with her face bruised, barely able to form sentences, saying she was raped, beaten and robbed by five of her friends whom she named. She added that the incident was filmed in order to blackmail her.
Prosecutors ordered the arrest of her attackers pending an investigation, referring to her as a “victim of sexual assault.” But Abdelaziz was also detained on charges of “misusing social media networks, inciting debauchery and violating Egyptian family values.”
“What are the “values of Egyptian society?” said Soliman, the human rights lawyer. “And who sets them? This is an unconstitutional charge.”
“These are broad statements. This could be a knife at the throats of women because of their choices in life – clothes, lifestyles, their ways of expressing themselves, everything that has to do with their existence.”
Abdelaziz’s rapists confessed to their crime. She was later transferred from jail to a government-run women’s shelter where she would receive psychological and social rehabilitation while the investigations continued.
On Sept. 17, the charges against her were dropped. She was released after the results of her social and psychological examination found that she had “suffered from psychological and passive disorders because of the hardships she experienced from an early age.” The examination results that were sent to the prosecution further elaborated that these hardships “affected her general behavior” and that “her lack of experience and weak character led her to making bad friends and seeking fame by any means.”
The “TikTok Girls” case garnered different reactions from the public. As many used patriarchal slurs to trash the detained women on social media, others started campaigns in their support. A petition calling for their immediate release gathered more than 219,000 signatures.
The response highlighted splits in Egyptian society on issues of sexuality and sexual violence, and the resistance to changing social norms.
“They are only a group of kids making silly videos,” Soliman said. “We need laws stemming from the Constitution, not the moral standards of certain groups.”