During the human rights review of Egypt at the UN Human Rights Council in November 2019, the head of the National Council for Women claimed that "under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, women faced marginalization, exclusion, discrimination and attempts to roll-back on women's rights…and the current political leadership has instead prioritized and progressed on women's empowerment."
As an Egyptian woman, I struggle to see how the current regime has made progress on women's rights from the dark ages of the Muslim Brotherhood. The current regime continues to discriminate, marginalize, and commit violence against women. This regime has further impeded our efforts to effectively progress because it equates human rights advocacy with terrorism and has clamped down on human rights organizations spearheading gender justice, such as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
Since November 15, 2020, three of our colleagues at EIPR were arbitrarily detained one after the other: Mohammed Basheer, EIPR's Administrative Manager, Karim Ennarah Director of EIPR's Criminal Justice Unit, and Gasser Abdel-Razek, the Executive Director of EIPR. They joined Patrick Zaki, EIPR Gender Researcher, who has been detained and tortured since February 2020. They, along with tens of thousands of other political prisoners, face baseless charges alleging membership in terrorist groups. Their arrests came in response to a meeting between senior EIPR staff and representatives from European countries and Canada on November 3rd to discuss the human rights situation in Egypt. Basheer, Ennarah and Abdel-Razek were provisionally released on December 3, but on December 6, the Terrorism Circuit Court ordered the freezing temporarily all their personal assets and property.
Too often, the West has provided cover for the regime's rights violations with expressions of support. Just days after this meeting, the President of the European Council met with President Al-Sisi in Cairo and "underlined the importance of joining forces in the fight against terrorism." Days before our colleagues' arrests, the Greek Prime Minister praised Egypt's counter-terrorism efforts and stated that Egypt plays an important role as guardian of moderate Islam.
The President Abdelfattah Al-Sisi regime has been anything but a guardian of moderate Islam when it comes to women's rights. Al-Sisi provided a clue to his approach toward women's rights way back in 2011, when as head of Military Intelligence, he defended to Amnesty International the use of virginity tests "to protect the army against possible allegations of rape."
Since April 2020, at least nine women have been arrested and charged with "violating Egyptian family values."In July 2020, at least three women were sentenced to 2 to 3 years imprisonment and fined 300,000 EGP (roughly $19,000) for their social media content (singing and dancing to pop songs on TikTok). The Prosecution's statement announcing the arrest of women social media influencers laid out the charges, which included "sexually arousing men" by "singing and dancing in a way that attracts attention" which has threatened "national and social security," "corrupted our society and values."
The statement claimed that it was the Prosecution's duty to "protect Egypt's 4th border, a reference to the Internet." The police report submitted to the Prosecution further cites one of the women "dancing in inappropriate clothes that accentuate her body and private parts".
One of these women was arrested after posting a video reporting that she was raped and pleading for help. EIPR took up her case and succeeded in securing her release. The Prosecution's statement on her case also demonstrates that the State's discrimination against women was also tied to discrimination based on socio-economic class. In a high profile case of a man who sexually assaulted dozens of upper-class women, the Prosecution stated that it "refuses to blame the victims." However, in a case involving a woman from a lower-socio-economic class, the Prosecution released a statement blaming the victim, specifically "her young age and difficult socioeconomic circumstances," and "warning parents of staying silent" on such deviant behavior.
Women are still banned from applying to join the Prosecution. Women law graduates have filed lawsuits to challenge this discrimination but so far to no avail while facing restrictions and threats due to their activism.
After reports on social media emerged about a high-profile gang rape, the National Council for Women (NCW) issued a public statement encouraging victims and witnesses to come forward and guaranteeing their protection. After witnesses came forward and the NCW presented the case to the Public Prosecution, the Prosecution accused at least one of the women witnesses with inciting debauchery and misusing social media. Regrettably, after making bold claims, the NCW has refused to support the detained witness, whose life has recently been threatened according to her lawyer. USAID and several European countries continue to financially support the NCW, ignoring the criticism of the organization voiced by women human rights defenders.
Proposals submitted by parliamentarians in 2017 and 2018 to amend laws on rape, sexual assault and to adopt a comprehensive law on combatting violence against women have been met with criticism or inaction. Recommendations from CEDAW in 2010 on bringing Egyptian legislation in line with its obligations under CEDAW remain unimplemented. The amendment the government has boasted about: raising the age of marriage for girls to 18 is actually ineffective because while the law does not allow for documentation of the marriage, it does not criminalize it.
The current regime commits violence against women systematically including threats of rape by security/military forces, rape, sexual harassment and assault, torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention of women human rights defenders and political activists, virginity tests, and forced genital examinations for transgender women. Detention conditions in female prisons in themselves amount to ill-treatment. Transgender women are detained in male detention centers, which puts them at risk of violence; legal efforts by activists to challenge it have failed. Impunity for these violations is widespread, despite legal and constitutional protections.
Non-State actors also commit violence against women systematically and with impunity. Mass sexual harassment and assault is widespread. Rape, sexual harassment and assault are under-reported due to legal and social barriers. Media reports promote "victim-blaming," questioning the testimonies of victims/survivors and implying that their behavior/dress code justifies the violence against them. Virginity tests forced marriages and female genital mutilation by families continues to be reported.
The current regime cannot be considered a reliable and stable partner to Western countries with close ties to Egypt
Respecting and guaranteeing human rights is essential for any stable society. The government's criminalization of all peaceful means to voice and address grievances makes Egypt a ticking time bomb. But the bomb can still be defused with the help of Egypt's Western allies. The Egyptian government's investment in its international image demonstrates the leverage Western governments, as does the provisional release of the three EIPR directors as a result of international pressure. Western governments should be pushing for the release of all those arbitrarily detained. Public condemnations are not enough. There need to be consequences for human rights violations, and no more blank cheques from friendly Western governments that purport to champion the rights of women.
As Jamal Khashoggi opined, democracy is the only lasting answer for security, peace, and dignity for the Middle East. Western governments should support the demand for democracy and human rights made by women activists, human rights defenders, and many others in Egypt, rather than supporting dictators who are doomed to eventually fail.
Image: Egyptian protesters hold up placards and shout slogans during a demonstration in Cairo against sexual harassment on February 12, 2013. Egyptian protesters took to the street again to demand an end to sexual violence, as campaigns against the repeated attacks in central Cairo pick up steam. Sexual harassment has long been a problem in Egypt, but recently the violent nature and frequency of the attacks have raised the alarm. AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)