Since the July 2013 military coup in Egypt, sexual violence and assault has increased, worsened, and changed in fundamental ways. While these practices have never been uncommon in Egypt’s detention centers, a recent report by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) indicates that sexual violence is increasingly being committed by police, army, security, and intelligence officials in the country. These assaults are happening in public spaces and private, residential areas, in addition to state-controlled facilities.
The report, titled “Exposing State Hypocrisy: Sexual Violence by Security Forces in Egypt,” is heavily based on testimonials from victims of sexual violence, lawyers, and members of human rights NGOs, and demonstrates how sexual violence is both tolerated and practiced by the Egyptian government for political reasons. The report found that sexual violence by state actors is taking place on a “massive scale” and that civilians—ranging from political opponents to activists and students—are indiscriminately arrested, detained, and subjected to these troubling practices.
Since coming to power, Abdel Fattah el Sisi and his regime have made many empty overtures toward women’s rights, including passing anti-harassment laws in response to appalling levels of sexual violence in the summer of 2014, during Sisi’s inauguration as president. The regime’s purported efforts at reducing sexual violence have included establishing the National Council for Women and a new set of measures for improving women’s rights, which has been spearheaded by the Ministry of Interior. At face value, these measures seem robust; they call for increased police patrols, improved sexual violence response facilities, more female physicians in security units, supplementing the police academy curriculum with sections on violence against women, establishing new “legislative instruments,” special tribunals, and judicial departments to punish offenders, and expanding the legal definition of violence against women.
These efforts are, however, being diluted by a larger, state strategy that relies on sexual violence as a political tool to repress civil society and penalize the opposition. In an interview with Mada Masr, Katherine Booth, director of FIDH’s Women’s Rights Office, said that “While tolerating these crimes, el-Sisi’s regime has also hijacked the fight against sexual violence as a pretext to tighten state security.” She explained how difficult it was to investigate, verify, and document sexual crimes because of a lack of judicial cooperation and social stigma. She added that assault allegations by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups have been particularly difficult to corroborate and investigate.
Booth also noted that these patterns of violence reveal a wider and deeper problem, explaining that they are “indicative of a more coordinated strategy to exert state control.” As she pointed out, since Sisi came to power allegations against state actors have increased dramatically, “all of which were met with impunity, meaning that the security forces are perpetrating more violations without consequences.”
In one case, a woman who filed a complaint under the 2014 anti-harassment laws was subjected to further violence by state actors; after reporting her harassment, the woman endured yet another sexual assault and was raped at the police station. Adding insult to injury, the state prosecutor subsequently required the woman to undergo a mandatory “virginity test,” in order to file her criminal report.
It is important to remember, however, that women are not the only targets of sexual violence in Egypt, with men increasingly being victimized by these crimes. Over forty thousand Egyptians have been arrested since 2013, most of them male. Many of these individuals are political prisoners—a group that is especially vulnerable to severe sexual violence. Through this form of torture, security and military forces try and obtain information from political detainees. As part of government efforts to force confessions from male prisoners, female family members are also often threatened with sexual violence.
According to the FIDH report, state actors particularly target LGBT individuals in prisons and in the streets, for the dual purpose of quashing political opposition and reinforcing the state’s moral authority.
In an op-ed for The Guardian, author Shereen El Feki condemned the heightened sexual violence in Egypt and partly blamed the Egyptian people for its increasing prevalence. As she noted, “[m]ost Egyptians I know, if not actively condoning the repression of those who jeopardise their last great hope of stability, are willing to turn a blind eye.”
In fact, many Egyptians do not act against sexual violence not because they approve of repression or are “turning a blind eye,” as El Feki argues, but rather because they often feel powerless in the face of a brutal state apparatus that condones and perpetuates sexual violence, and does nothing when it comes to accountability. For instance, since 2014, shortly after Sisi came to power, there have been no trials for crimes of sexual violence against either state actors or civilian offenders.
Amid this demoralizing backdrop, several civic groups and initiatives are stepping into the void and taking a stand against sexual violence in Egypt. They include Harass Map, a tool for mapping and reporting sexual assaults, the Speak Up campaign, which encourages victims of sexual violence to come forward, various popular art movements, the Women on Walls graffiti campaign, Operation Anti Sexual Harassment, a group that monitors and intervenes in active incidents of harassment during protests, Shoft Ta7arosh (I Saw Harassment), an organization that monitors and fights harassment, Basma, a group that works with victims and perpetrators of sexual harassment to facilitate dialogue and prevent future occurrences of these crimes, and Nazra for Feminist Studies, an Egyptian feminist organization focused on raising awareness around women’s issues.
These movements, among many others, represent a rejection of repression and violence. As the state continues to use sexual assault as a political tool, these groups are doing what they can to protect innocent civilians from sexual violence and the government’s perverse designs.