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Alleged sexual offenders face social media barrage in Egypt

Despite rising online calls for sexual offenders to be held accountable for their crimes and a new amendment to the anti-sexual harassment law guaranteeing confidentiality of survivors, many women in Egypt are still reluctant to report sexual harassment incidents for fear of being stigmatized.

The Me Too movement has taken Egypt by storm with an increasing number of women joining on social media in recent weeks to name men they claim have sexually assaulted or harassed them. Emboldened by the July 4 arrest and detention of Ahmed Bassam Zaki — a university student accused of sexual assault and harassment of dozens of women — other women have stepped up their accusations against other alleged sexual offenders in the hope that the perpetrators be brought to justice.

The online anti-sexual harassment campaign has attracted the media's attention, piling pressure on the authorities to take action to stem the tide of sexual harassment, widespread in Egypt

On Aug. 25 — a month after allegations of a 2014 gang rape of an 18-year old girl at a five-star Cairo hotel surfaced on social media — the public prosecutor ordered the arrest of several young men accused in what is called locally the “Fairmont Crime.” He also imposed a travel ban on the suspects (who hail from wealthy and powerful families) and placed their names on watch lists at the country's airports and seaports. 

Six of the suspects have since been arrested, four of them in Lebanon on Aug. 28 during an Interpol-coordinated operation. The other two were arrested earlier in Egypt, one in the north coast and the other, Amir Zayed, at the airport Aug. 26 as he tried to leave Egypt.

A now-deleted video of the incident at the Fairmont Hotel (apparently shot by one of those involved) had gone viral on social media in late July, sending shock waves across the conservative country and provoking an outcry from women's rights advocates. Earlier this month, the National Council for Women received a complaint from the young woman, who alleged she had been drugged before being raped by at least six men. Eyewitness testimonies were also sent to the council, which called for legal action to be taken against the suspects. 

News of the arrest warrant issued by the public prosecutor against the suspects drew mixed reactions on social media, with some hailing the move as “a victory” and others complaining that the perpetrators were given ample time to flee the country despite the fact that their names were known. 

In recent days, in a startling turnaround, three purported female witnesses to the incident were ordered arrested and are under investigation on charges of drug abuse, inciting debauchery and organizing and taking part in orgies. The lawyer of one of the witnesses told al-Manassa news site that the witnesses are being subjected to a defamation campaign on social media. He said he was holding the National Council for Women responsible for their arrests as it had reneged on its promise to protect the women and shield their identities.

The rising online calls for sexual offenders to be held accountable for their crimes is a turnabout in a country where sexual violence has long remained taboo and where women have tolerated sexual harassment and assault for fear of being stigmatized if they spoke out publicly. But while Egyptian women are increasingly turning to social media to expose alleged harassers and rapists, most have been reluctant to file legal complaints against alleged perpetrators either for fear of reprisal attacks or of bringing shame to their families. 

It remains to be seen whether a new amendment introduced July 8 to Egypt's 2014 anti-sexual harassment law, which guarantees the confidentiality of sexual assault and harassment survivors, will encourage more women to come forward and report harassment and rape.

But so far this does not seem to be the case. While allegations of sexual assault and harassment against a high-profile investigative journalist have emerged on social media in recent days, none of the women have, as of yet, filed legal complaints against the accused man. This is despite statements released by the Journalists Syndicate and the National Council for Women calling on the women — all of them journalists — to report the alleged rape and harassment incidents. 

They "are young, vulnerable women from conservative rural backgrounds; they are afraid of being stigmatized and of sullying their reputation and bringing dishonor to their families,” said Safaa Abdel Hamid, founder of the Egyptian Media Women Union, a nongovernmental organization that serves as a support network for young and mid-career journalists — in particular female journalists — enhancing their skills through media training workshops. “In addition, they fear revenge attacks by the accused harasser,” she told Al-Monitor. 

On Aug. 17, a testimonial was published on a blog site named “Notebook Stories” by a woman who did not reveal her identity accusing the prominent journalist of attempting to rape her nine years ago when she was still a student. Referring to him by his initials, she claimed he beat her with a belt, forcing her to undress and buried her head under a sofa as he attempted to rape her from behind. The young woman's graphic account of the failed rape attempt was quickly followed by two more testimonials of alleged sexual harassment at the hands of the journalist. In the second (by an unidentified trainee-journalist who had attended a media training workshop conducted by the accused), the young woman said the man had groped her after offering to give her a lift home in his car.

The women's descriptions of the alleged harassment incidents sparked outrage among rights groups and activists on social media and provoked a backlash against the journalist, whose images were widely circulated with a caption with his name and the word "Rapist!” The testimonials also encouraged other women to recount their experiences of sexual abuse allegedly at his hands. He denies the charges against him.

On Aug. 21, four days after the first testimonial was published, Zaina Erhaim, a prominent Syrian journalist, published yet one more account of sexual abuse sent to her by another Syrian journalist who had met the man at a workshop in Jordan in 2015. 

“After luring me to his hotel room on the pretext that it was quieter to work from there, he pushed me onto the bed and threw himself on top of me,” the woman recalled. She said she managed to escape with only some bruises on her body, after kicking him and dashing for the door. 

Erhaim urged other victims attest to the man's sexual misconduct and the testimonials have since been forthcoming: Ten have been published so far (three on Erhaim's Facebook page and seven on the blog site against the man, a media coach who has been chairperson at the DW Akademie Alumni Network for the Middle East and North Africa.

The accused journalist, Hisham Allam, identified himself as the journalist in question in a Facebook post (that has since been removed) in which he denied the allegations against him. He urged those making the accusations to pursue them legally rather than via social media and accused the women of trying to destroy him morally. In further attempts to rebut the accusations, he sought the help of two female journalists (a Syrian and an Egyptian) who sent fake testimonials against him to the administrators of the blog site “to prove that the blogsite publishes fake testimonials without verifying their authenticity," the Syrian journalist later said in a video posted on YouTube.

His plan backfired and only served to fuel the anger of the activists. Meanwhile, several networks, organizations and universities with which the man has collaborated on work projects issued statements condemning sexual assault and harassment and expressing solidarity with such victims.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a global network of investigative journalists, was the first to suspend Allam's participation in the network indefinitely, according to a statement published on its official website. The nonprofit won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize along with McClatchy and the Miami Herald for their work on the Panama Papers project, to which Allam contributed along with scores of other reporters. 

The Amman-based Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalists, with which Allam had worked as a media trainer, also published a disclaimer on its Facebook page saying the network was currently not working with Allam on any projects and expressing its solidarity with “the victims.”

Allam's defense lawyer Yasser Sayed Ahmed, later announced his withdrawal from the case for “personal reasons.”

“I advised Allam to file a legal complaint with the anti-cybercrime police and he has complied,” Ahmed told Al-Monitor. “But I too came under attack for taking the case.”

“Justice will not be served by attacking people on social media,” he said.

Men have also joined the Me Too chorus; in recent weeks a prominent dentist in Alexandria was accused by at least two artists (Tamim Younes and Abbas Abul Hassan) of sexually molesting male patients during visits to his clinic. This is the first time that men have spoken out about being harassed by a male perpetrator; this is perhaps a sign of significant change in the patriarchal society.

It may be time for legislators to revisit the country’s 2014 anti-sexual harassment laws (which fall well short of stipulating punishment for sexual harassment of men) to bring them on par with the dramatic developments unfolding in Egyptian society.

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