On Wednesday, May 16, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi continued a Ramadan tradition of granting presidential pardons en masse, freeing 330 prisoners, including youth activists and individuals struggling with mental health issues. While these detainees were set free, however, others faced arbitrary arrest and detention. Among them was Egyptian activist Amal Fathy.
Just a week prior to the pardons, on May 9, Fathy posted a video to her Facebook page. In the video, she decried the Egyptian government’s lack of action to combat Egypt’s pervasive sexual harassment problem, describing an incident in which she was harassed by a security staff member at a local bank. She also criticized the government’s harsh treatment of political protesters.
Fathy soon faced a wave of recrimination from social media users, as well as pro-government media outlets. On May 10, private media outlet “Youm7,” which is supportive of the Sisi regime, published an article accusing Fathy of using “obscene” words against the Egyptian state and being “part of the suspicious April 6 movement.” These accusations appeared alongside an array of seemingly candid photos of Fathy. According to a statement from Amnesty International, Fathy was also subject to gender-based attacks on social media, after releasing the video.
This unfortunate campaign against Fathy culminated in her arrest on May 11. According to a statement from the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), the police raided the home she shares with her husband Mohammad Lotfy in the Cairo suburb of Maadi, confiscated their phones, and arrested the couple and their three-year-old child. Lotfy, who is the Executive Director of ECRF, was held with their son for a few hours and then released. The Maadi district prosecutor decided, however, to hold Fathy for fifteen days, under charges including abusing social media, spreading false rumors, and inciting the overthrow of the government, according to a statement from the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.
In a statement about Fathy’s arrest from Amnesty International, Najia Bounaim, the North Africa Campaigns Director, observed that: “It is a dark day when the Egyptian authorities are more concerned with silencing a woman who speaks out about sexual harassment than taking steps to address the issue.”
Indeed, Fathy’s arrest highlights an alarming attitude towards sexual harassment in Egypt. Government-friendly media outlets and the Egyptian police are both using nationalism to thinly-veil sexist attempts to discredit Fathy. In the process, they are further entrenching and legitimizing the sexist attitudes that fuel harassment, including the belief amongst 43 percent of Egyptian men that women “like the attention.”
Rather than jailing and demeaning women like Amal Fathy, who are confronting Egypt’s very real sexual harassment problem, authorities need to reckon with this pervasive problem and examine their own role in perpetuating, and even institutionalizing, sexism.