No, President El-Sisi is not Making Egypt Safer for Women

On August 12, 2018, the Egyptian government ratified the Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes Law, a measure outwardly aiming to combat terrorism and extremism. Yet the law has disproportionately targeted female activists by allowing the government to frame viral denouncements of sexual assault as threats to national security. This discriminatory use of the law amply demonstrates how El-Sisi’s government is covertly dismantling feminist activism while outwardly condemning misogyny.

In 2013, the United Nations reported that over 99% of Egyptian women had experienced sexual harassment or assault in their lives. Yet it was only after Western public figures, such as a Dutch journalist, experienced sexual assault and rape in “circles of hell” during Tahrir Square protests against then-President Mohamed Morsi, that international media — and subsequently the Egyptian government —  turned the spotlight on to sexual assault in Egypt.

Incumbent Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has sold himself as a feminist champion to both Western governments and his own people. Following El-Sisi’s June 2014 coup, the new President initiated unprecedented steps to combat sexual harassment. On his third day in office, he publicly apologized to a survivor of mass rape, assuring her that the Egyptian state “will not allow this to happen again.” A few days later, he publicly denounced sexual assault and ordered Egyptian police to enforce the anti-harassment law which his predecessor, interim president Adly Mansour, had implemented. In July 2014, seven men guilty of attempted murder, rape, and torture were sentenced to life for their crimes. Nonetheless, Egyptian feminists have criticized El-Sisi’s actions as lacking: after his rise to power, these female activists unsuccessfully urged him to align his anti-harassment law with international standards. Despite El-Sisi’s outward denouncements of sexual violence, sexual assault and harassment is still rampant in Egypt.  

Female voters secured both El-Sisi’s elections. Before the 2014 election, El-Sisi denounced his predecessor, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohammed Morsi. The Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative, religious political organization that led the 2011 revolution, is rife with misogyny. In 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood famously rejected a UN proposal to end violence against women in Egypt, and drafted a constitution lacking any reference to gender-based discrimination.

Hala Shukrallah, the 2014 candidate of the progressive Dostour Party, argued that the many women who supported El-Sisi did so because they conflated his denouncements of the Muslim Brotherhood with a condemnation of the group’s entire ideology, including its sexist beliefs. In fact, one Cairo resident, Zozo Wahba, stated that El-Sisi’s ascension to power would “give the woman her voice — at work, in the streets, at home… Right now we are weak.”

On May 7th 2014, El-Sisi capitalized on this conflation to garner further support from female voters, stating in an interview, “Personally, I love Egyptian women. And all the Egyptian women are going to help me rebuild the nation”.  Local and international media labelled El-Sisi’s female supporters as “El-Sisi’s women.” Dissent against the Muslim Brotherhood from prominent Egyptian women including Tahani El Gebali, then-Supreme Constitutional Court judge, and Shahinda Makland, a renowned feminist, galvanized many Egyptian female voters to support El-Sisi. This was to the dismay of left-wing activists, many of whom cited El-Sisi’s support of invasive “virginity tests.” During both his 2014 and 2018 campaigns, El-Sisi capitalized on the blatant sexism of his predecessors to target the female vote, spurring voter turnout and solidifying his win.

El-Sisi continued to utilize the “women’s vote” for his 2018 re-election, when he declared 2017 the “Year of Women” and added two new female parliament members to his cabinet (now 18% female) four days before he announced his intent to run for a second term. El-Sisi has portrayed his government as supporting gender equality despite its failures to produce real change and its actions against female activists.

The Cybersecurity law follows a long line of actions by El-Sisi’s government to crack down on both feminism and political dissent. In 2016, the Cairo Criminal Court re-opened a 2011 court case, “Case 173” against various NGOs, in which the government accused organizations and their leaders of illegally acquiring foreign funds with the intent to “harm national security.” Among these were prominent women’s rights organizations and Egyptian female activists, such as Azza Soliman, lawyer and founder of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, and Mozn Hassan. The court froze Soliman’s assets, placed her on a travel ban and arrested her without providing any clear reason for detainment. Hassan remains under a travel ban today. Various international organizations have protested in vain against such actions by the Egyptian government. In 2017, the Egyptian government enacted strict laws to regulate NGOs, and it has since arrested numerous activists and lawyers. In May, 2017, the Egyptian government began banning websites, including Al-Jazeera. The July 2018 passage of the Media Regulation Law legitimized this practice. Egyptian Human rights activist Mohamad Lotfy argued that arrests of Egyptian female activists such as Soliman,  unmasks the government’s animosity not just to human rights defenders in general, but also to the independent Egyptian feminist movement.”  This Cybersecurity law passed due to the intense repression of Egyptian feminists. The Cybersecurity law legalizes what the government has already been doing: restricting the online and offline impact of prominent Egyptian feminists, many of whom speak out against El-Sisi’s government. An expansion Egyptian feminist influence would decrease widespread female approval for El-Sisi’s presidency, shrink his voter base, consequently threatening the legitimacy of his rule.

"Despite El-Sisi’s attempts to get demonstrate the “love” and respect for women that his administration holds, the cybersecurity law exposes El-Sisi’s true motives: to exploit women’s causes for political gain, while simultaneously maintaining the status quo of sexism, assault and oppression."

The context surrounding El-Sisi’s Cybercrime law is also crucial. This law comes at a time when many Egyptian women are using the internet to speak out not only against their assailants, but also the government’s complicity in such violence. In the footsteps of the global #MeToo movement, Egyptian women launched their own: #AnaKaman (literally, Me Too). This has fostered a virtual space for Egyptian women to connect with and support one another, while simultaneously demonstrating the enormity of the sexual assault epidemic in Egypt. What’s more, this organizing has borne results.In August 2017, Menna Gubran’s Facebook Video of a man who stalked her in a car and asked her for coffee sparked wide controversy in Egypt. In a monumental case for Upper Egypt, Rania Fahmy won her sexual harassment case in February 2018 after a video of her beating her assailant with her handbag went viral. Instances like these, and the feminists behind them, bring to light the shocking number of sexual assault cases in Egypt, sexism, and El-Sisi’s government’s mishandling of the situation.

The Cybersecurity law is a step backwards for women’s rights in Egypt, as it has allowed the government to label online criticism of the sexual assault problem in Egypt as a security threat.  Notably, it has led to the arrests of Amal Fathy, an Egyptian actress who posted a video in which a police officer in a Cairo bank sexually harassed her, and Mona Mazbouh, a Lebanese tourist who was sentenced to 8 years in prison (this was eventually repealed) for detailing the sexual harassment she experienced. El-Sisi’s government determined these women’s words as “indecent material,” “fake news,” and “rumors that aim to undermine society and attack religions.”

The law is intentionally vague.  Article 23 of the statute states that “the contempt of heavenly religions” is punishable by either life or aggravated imprisonment, while Article 14 condemns the production or circulation of material that “may offend public morality,” or be a threat to “national security.” Rife with ambiguities, the Cybersecurity legislation leaves leg room for the Egyptian court to interpret the law as it sees fit and arbitrarily criminalize activists. As Mozn Hassan, prominent Egyptian feminist and founder of Nazra for Feminist Studies, states, this law permits “criticism of Egypt, the society or what women face here [to be] turned into a matter of national security that the government believes should not be a subject of public discussion.”

The language used in the law is eerily similar to El-Sisi’s own rhetoric. When asked in a 2017 interview about how El-Sisi would address Cairo’s status as an unsafe city for women, El-Sisi responded with the following: “I am going to ask a question. Who is the one who decides that Egypt is more dangerous for women or not? What survey has been done to establish that? What public opinion survey was done? Who is accusing us of this?” El-Sisi’s blatantly defensive tone frames accusations of rampant sexual assault in Egypt as an attack on Egyptian society. He makes no answer to how he will address this issue, nor acknowledges women’s experiences, indicating that his regard for the sexual assault problem in Egypt is focalized on international and public perception, rather than on women themselves. This rhetoric shows that El-Sisi perceives the Egyptian feminist movement and #AnaKeman as a threat to Egypt’s status internationally and to his regime. El-Sisi’s words reveal that his government is not focused on solving the problem of mass sexual assault but rather on smothering its critics. With El-Sisi extending his term until 2030, he will continue to harm the Egyptian feminist movement while projecting a regime of “progress.”

Despite El-Sisi’s attempts to demonstrate the “love” and respect for women that his administration holds, the cybersecurity law exposes El-Sisi’s true motives: to exploit women’s causes for political gain, while simultaneously maintaining the status quo of sexism, assault and oppression. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi does not care about women. Indeed, the Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes Law and its consequent censorship of feminist voices embodies El-Sisi’s  government’s true lack of regard for Egyptian women. They suggest that El-Sisi’s public actions are a political tool, one used to garner internal and external support while failing to combat sexual assault at all. His actions demonstrate a larger trend of politicians and governments outwardly expressing concern for women for political gain while simultaneously enacting laws that stifle female voices and perpetuate violence.

Photo: “Anti-Sexual Harassment Protest in Cairo

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