Dina Zakaria is a co-founder of the Egyptian Freedom and Justice Party and a member of its Foreign Relations Committee. She is also a TV presenter who has hosted a variety of political programs.
Egyptian actress Rania Youssef attracted global headlines last week when it was revealed that she may be facing trial over her fashion choices on a Cairo red carpet. It’s a scandalous case, but at least it’s generating publicity. The many other Egyptian women who are enduring even more outrageous persecution are getting little attention for their plight.
Among them is Amal Fathy, who uploaded a 12-minute video to Facebook recounting an incident of sexual harassment she had faced. She has just had another 45 days added to her “preventative detention.” She is facing ridiculous charges, including “publication of false news undermining national security” and “joining a terror group.” All this for having spoken out about sexual harassment, including criticism of the Egyptian government’s failure to protect women.
Cairo was ranked as the most dangerous megacity in the world for women in a 2017 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll based on four categories of assessment, the first being “sexual violence.” Fathy was taken away two days after uploading the video on May 9, 2018, and has not been freed since.
In an another instance, May El Shamy, who earlier this year went public with her complaint against her boss over alleged sexual harassment, has received aggressive and violent online abuse. She, too, has been labeled a “terrorist.”
A Lebanese woman, Mona Mazbouh, who also went public via Facebook with her experience of harassment in Egypt, was arrested at Cairo airport and initially sentenced to eight years in prison. Thankfully, she was released after serving three months of her sentence due to a significant international outcry.
In all three cases, a new law passed by the Egyptian Parliament in July has been used to justify these extreme measures. This law can punish anyone alleged to be publishing “fake news,” intended to disrupt public order or “spreading rumors that undermine Egyptian society."
As a talk show host, I routinely receive messages and complaints of sexual harassment. Just a few days ago, I was told of a teacher in Tahrir Primary School in Cairo who sexually harassed almost all the girls in his class.
Several prominent female human rights defenders were disappeared or detained in the past few weeks as well. In fact, on the night of Nov. 1, at least eight women were taken from their homes, including 60-year-old human rights lawyer Hoda Abdel Moneim, according to Human Rights Watch. Her family did not hear from her for 21 days until she appeared in court, accused of financing a banned organization.
Aisha al-Shater and Summayya Nasef also disappeared that night. Aisha al-Shater is the daughter of senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater, who himself is currently imprisoned; Nasef is an activist. Here, too, the authorities denied any knowledge of their whereabouts until they appeared in court. Three of the eight women taken that night have now been released. All are too scared to discuss what happened.
These detentions come in addition to the approximately 80 other women currently being held as political prisoners.
This is not to deny that men are also facing similar fates. On the contrary, on the same night of Nov. 1, more than 30 men were also forcibly disappeared. It has become routine for anyone who speaks out against President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and his actions to be immediately silenced.
What is distinct about the situation of women, however, is the targeting of those who complain about sexual harassment. It would seem that the Egyptian state sees no place for women to have a voice at all. It takes any criticism, whether of the government or other Egyptian men, as an affront to its power and acts in every way possible to silence those who are brave enough to raise their voices. Sissi’s is an abusive regime, incapable of seeing the damage it is inflicting on all parts of society and ruling through violence and submission.
Ironically, Sissi — who once defended the practice of carrying out forced “virginity tests” on female detainees — has tried to show himself as a reformer when it came to women’s rights. He decreed in 2014 that police should enforce laws that protect women from sexual harassment after a horrifying video appeared of a woman being attacked and stripped at celebrations for his inauguration. This, too, is now revealing itself to be empty rhetoric further proof that the Sissi regime is only able to rule through fear and force.
The way a government and a society treats its women is revealing. We should not ignore these telling signs that the Sissi regime is unstable and erratic. In the lead-up to Jamal Khashoggi’s horrific murder, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was also arresting and detaining women that were critical of him, all the while promoting himself as a reformer. The international community by and large ignored these distressing warnings, giving him cover to continue committing his crimes. We cannot allow the same thing to happen in Egypt.