This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
Egypt, a transcontinental country between Africa and Asia, has been embroiled in wars and conflicts consistently throughout its long history. Over time, various catalysts like imperial interests, extremist movements, internal unrest and dwindling economy, often in combinations, have fed such conflicts. Egypt’s on-going crisis is a typical example of chaos due to heavily distorted leaderless conflicts. A major pro-democracy revolution to oust Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship unfolded in 2011.
Although it removed Mubarak, it failed to bring respite even in the democratic elections that followed. In 2013, following protests by both pro-Islamic and the secular forces, Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, was ousted and arrested by the military, orchestrated by then defense minister Abdel Fattah as-Sisi. Sisi’s presidency since 2014 has seen a return of military rule and has contested mass arrests and killing of journalists and civilians in false pretexts of curtailing terrorism (HRW 2020).
Reports have said that violence in 2013-2014 resulted in about 2,600 deaths (HRW 2020) The government has granted unlimited powers and impunity to the military by declaring a “state of emergency” from 2017. In 2019, the government amended the constitution to consolidate authoritarian rule, undermine the judiciary’s independence, and expand the military’s power of interference (ICJ 2019; HRW 2020). The economy and political instability continue to keep the cycle of violence alive.
The Prevalence of Sexual Violence
Against this background, violence against women has manifested as large-scale overt violence augmented by longstanding cultural attitudes that are oppressive towards women. In 2013, the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women reported that 99.3% of Egyptian women had experienced some form of harassment. Mass sexual assault of women first began in 2005, when Egyptian security forces used sexual assault as a weapon against female protestors who demonstrated in Tahrir Square, Cairo, on May 25, 2005 – a day that came to be known as Black Wednesday. The police watched and did nothing to intervene or protect the women from further harm (Amar 2011).
This pattern continued to the point that by 2012, sexual assault by crowds of young women were commonplace in any mass gatherings – be they protests or festivals (Kassab and Mamdouh 2012). In 2006, after Eid al-Fitr, a group of men who had not been admitted into a movie theatre carried out a mass sexual assault of women on Talaat Harb Street that lasted five hours (Abdelhadi 2006; El Naggar & Slackman 2006). Here, too, the police did not do anything to stop the incidents – and bystanders tried their best to intervene (Rizzo, Price, & Meyer 2008). In February 2011, Lara Logan, correspondent for the American Network, CBS, was sexually assaulted by several men in Tahrir Square while reporting on the 2011 Egyptian Revolution (Replogle 2011).
In the course of these assaults, one round of men encircled women, and a second round encircled the men. The first round were assailants who carried out the sexual assault, while the second round comprised men who fought the rescuers and kept them from protecting the women. The attackers casually stood around claiming to protect women – which only led to more chaos. Instances of sexual violence documented in this time show that women were beaten, bitten, groped, stripped, penetrated with fingers, and even raped (Amnesty International 2015).
In the period of transitional government between February 2011 and June 2012 , Amnesty International (2015) reported that 18 female protesters arrested after army officers cleared Tahrir Square on March 9, 2005 were detained, beaten, and given electric shocks. Of these, 17 were then subjected to strip searches, forced to submit ‘virginity tests’ and threatened with prostitution charges. Egyptian authorities initially denied requiring virginity tests, but a senior general who asked not to be identified acknowledged the practice to CNN in February 2011 and said that the tests were performed as a safeguard against the women accusing authorities of sexual assault. However, the Egyptian court has since banned the tests (2011).
The Strategic Use of Sexual Violence
Broadly, the sexual assault was motivated by a sense of entitlement over women. The attacks were largely socially motivated, rather than politically, and was the result of “diverse motives including pleasure, a desire to dominate women and a perceived sense of sexual deprivation as marriage may be financially prohibitive” (Tadros 2013). The culture of impunity kept in place by the breakdown of surveillance and police apathy enabled its perpetration (El Feki 2013). The socio-political and economic oppression in the country has also been cited as a basis for the sexual assault (El Feki 2013).
Abdelhadi, M. 2006. “Cairo street crowds target women”, BBC News, 1 November 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6106500.stm
Amar, P. (2011). “Turning the Gendered Politics of the Security State Inside Out.” International Feminist Journal of Politics, 13(3), 299–328.
Amnesty International. (2015). “Circles of Hell: Domestic, Public and State Violence Against Women in Egypt.” January 2015. https://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/mde_120042015.pdf
El Feki, S. (2013). Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World. Canada: Double Day
El Naggar, M. & Slackman, M. (2006). “Silence and Fury in Cairo After Sexual Attacks on Women”, The New York Times, 15 November 2006. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/15/world/africa/15cairo.html
Kassab, B. & Mamdouh, R. (2012). “The Widespread Plague of Sexual Harassment in Egypt”, Al Akhbar. https://web.archive.org/web/20120924114457/http:/english.al-akhbar.com/node/12456
Replogle, E. (2011). “Reference Groups, Mob Mentality, and Bystander Intervention: A Sociological Analysis of the Lara Logan Case,” Sociological Forum, 26(4), 796–805.
Rizzo, H., Price, A. M., & Meyer, K. (2008). “Targeting Cultural Change in Repressive Environments: The Campaign against Sexual Harassment in Egypt”, The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights. http://ecwronline.org/pdf/studies/AntiHarassment_for_ECWR.pdf
Tadros, M. (2013). “Politically Motivated Sexual Assault and the Law in Violent Transitions: A Case Study From Egypt” (PDF). Institute of Development Studies. http://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/123456789/2950/ER8%20final%20online.pdf
Zuhur, S. 2014. “Women’s Quest for Equality in Post-Revolutionary Egypt,” in Claudia Derichs, Dana Fennert (eds.), Women’s Movements and Countermovements, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Documented by: Madhumitha S