A growing number of Egyptian women, many influenced by the #MeToo movement, are coming forward to expose sexual harassment, women’s rights activists and lawyers say. But they face a unique obstacle: a repressive government that often considers such complaints to be a form of unacceptable criticism.

In some instances, women are subjected to a vicious backlash that brands them as terrorists or extremists. These campaigns against the women seem to be modeled on the tactics used by the government to target political opponents and critics.

And in other cases, government authorities have taken legal action against women.

May El Shamy is believed to be the first Egyptian woman to file a police report against her superior, a man who works for an influential newspaper aligned with the government. So when the 28-year-old fashion editor goes to work these days, she feels proud. She’s done what few Egyptian women have done.

“At the same time, I am a little scared,” she said. Her boss, who denies the allegation, remains in his job and in charge of her fate.

After Shamy filed the report, she was targeted by an online smear campaign, which included accusations that she is a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, considered by the government to be a terrorist organization.

“May broke the barrier of fear and this will encourage more women to speak out against sexual harassment,” said Intsar El Saeed, her lawyer. “But the challenge we are facing now is to not allow them to politicize the case and drag it away from the sexual harassment issues.”

A culture of harassment

Sexual harassment has long been a problem in Egypt.

A United Nations survey in 2013 found that 99 percent of Egyptian women reported having experienced it. And last year, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey found Cairo to be the world’s most dangerous megacity for women.

The abuses continue despite a law adopted in 2014 criminalizing sexual harassment. Sissi himself vowed to take a stand against sexual violence and protect women’s rights.

Since then, however, lawyers and activists say they are seeing more women report sexual assaults, whether on social media or in local media. Police and prosecutors are more willing in some cases to investigate their claims in a timely manner, said activists and lawyers.

The #MeToo movement in the United States, they added, has prompted more public discussion. Last month, a woman posted a video on Facebook showing a man pestering her to have a cup of coffee with her, sparking a discussion on social media on what constitutes sexual harassment.

“What’s happening in Egypt is that people are becoming more and more aware of sexual harassment and how much of an epidemic it is here,” said Shamy’s lawyer, Saeed. But she added that while there “has been a lot of progress in the last few years, there is still a lot more to accomplish on this front.”

How is the government silencing women?

In July, Egypt’s parliament passed a law granting the government sweeping powers to regulate social and traditional media, permitting President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s widening security clampdown on free speech and dissent to deepen.

Then, last month, the government handed human rights activist Amal Fathy a two-year jail sentence for posting a 12-minute Facebook video detailing her allegations of sexual harassment at a bank and decrying the government’s failure to protect women.

Authorities said Fathy “was spreading false news” to undermine the country’s image and suspended her sentence only after she paid a hefty fine. But she is now facing a separate trial after the government accused her of being a member of a banned “outlaw group.”

The watchdog group Amnesty International blasted the verdict as an “outrageous case of injustice,” adding that Fathy’s case “highlighted the vital issue of women’s safety in Egypt.” Najia Bounaim, Amnesty’s North Africa campaigns director, said Fathy was “not a criminal and should not be punished for her bravery.”

This summer, a Lebanese tourist was sentenced to eight years in prison after she described in a Facebook video the sexual harassment she endured while on vacation in Egypt. A Cairo court found her guilty of spreading false rumors harmful to society, among other charges. Only after an international uproar threatened Egypt’s tourism industry was the woman’s sentence cut short last month and she was allowed to leave Egypt after paying a heavy fine.

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