Who can protect women from sexual harassment in Egypt?

The public prosecution in Egypt have announced that they have opened an investigation into the young man Ahmed Bassam Zaki, who was arrested by the police after allegations of “rape and harassment” of dozens of girls, in a case that sparked widespread controversy in Egypt.

Two security sources indicated that the Criminal Investigation Department in Cairo arrested a young man, according to an order made by the Public Prosecution Office. The judicial order said that a girl accused Zaki of “threatening her four years ago to force her to have sex with him.” A security source said that the young man denied the charges brought against him by the girl. The sources indicated that the prosecution will investigate one complaint against the accused, despite the reports of dozens of girls against him via social media.

Zaki’s case raises a renewed question about who protects women in Egypt from sexual harassment, as it is clear, according to current stories, that the young man harassed women for many years without anyone stopping him. Although some considered Zaki’s arrest a victory, others indicated that Zaki is only being investigated over one case, despite talk of some 150 incidents of sexual harassment and rape. Usually, girls subjected to sexual harassment or rape are afraid to report and talk about what they have been exposed to, and they resort to silence, which means the criminal is not charged and is encouraged to continue.

A group of girls created an Instagram account called Assault Police on July 1, 2020, calling on all women who were sexually harassed and assaulted by Ahmed Bassam Zaki to come forward and tell their stories, to collect enough evidence against him with the purpose of bringing him to justice. The Assault Police page said that “Ahmed Bassam Zaki is a sexual predator who preyed on a shocking number of women and underage girls all around Egypt. He has been getting away with it for five years now, facing no consequences for his actions. He ridicules and blackmails his victims.” The page confirmed that within 24 hours, more than 100 girls (until publishing this post) came forward and provided evidence that Zaki has previously harassed them online or in real life.

The Assault Police added that the testimonies included numerous rape incidents, sexual harassment, and inappropriate text and voice messages that he sent them. Despite this shocking number of cases, the investigations are only looking into one case as just one girl officially pursued a complaint with the public prosecution.

Observers say that despite the amendment of Egyptian laws to increase the punishment for harassment, the Egyptian regime did not follow effective means to encourage girls to report what they were subjected to, and girls continued to fear speaking out in public about harassment. The prosecution stated on Friday evening, that “the Monitoring and Analysis Unit of the Attorney General’s Office has closely followed during the past days what is being discussed by social networking sites about a young man who assaulted a number of girls and coerced them into immoral practices by threat.”

The statement pointed out that the unit is following procedures for examination, monitoring, and analysis in preparation for submitting the matter to the public prosecutor to take what is legally necessary. According to the Public Prosecution Office, one girl filed a complaint on the prosecution’s website. Observers say that the social media coverage of Ahmed Zaki is similar to the MeToo campaign that swept the world two years ago and exposed many unethical practices and sexual scandals.

The National Council for Women, a government institution concerned with women’s affairs, called on the relevant authorities in the country to investigate the complaints reported on social networking sites. In a statement, the council encouraged all the assaulted girls to submit an official complaint against this young man, so that “he will be punished and will serve as an example to all those who harm and harass women.”

Maya Morsi, the council president, said that the girls who spoke on social media about the sexual harassment they were subjected to by the young man, hesitate to submit official reports for fear of defamation. Maya stressed the need for the victim to file a complaint against the accused, calling on the media to encourage girls to report.

The group (Assault Police), which is being watched by thousands, said that there were testimonies of more than 100 girls of rape and sexual harassment by the young man, as well as text and voice messages which he sent them which were described as insulting. The group posted an audio recording of a phone call, which showed what it said was the young man’s voice threatening a young girl in English to force her to come to him every week for sex. He threatened the girl by saying he would kill her new boyfriend if she abandoned him.

Some girls mentioned that the young man studied at the American University in Cairo, but the American University issued a statement saying that the young man left the university two years ago, and that the university “absolutely does not tolerate sexual harassment and is committed to maintaining a safe environment for all members of the university community.”

In 2014, Egypt increased the penalty for sexual harassment to reach imprisonment for a period of six months, which increases to a year if it reoccurs. The fine ranges between EGP 5,000 ($311) and EGP 20,000 ($1,245), while the penalty for rape reaches life imprisonment or the death sentence in some cases if the victim is less than 18-years-old. Despite all of this, girls are afraid of scandal and social stigma if they talk publicly in society about being subjected to harassment or rape.

Many parents believe sexual harassment is a disgrace which should be denied and not talked about as many blame the girl, saying that the harassment was caused by her clothes or the way she walked and talked.

Zaki’s incident comes less than two months after another incident that sparked widespread controversy on social media, when a girl (less than 16-years-old), Menna Abdel Aziz, appeared in a video and said that she was raped. Menna appeared with a bruised face in the video which appeared to be captured moments after the attack. Then Menna appeared in another video denying she was raped and observers confirmed she denied it after the perpetrator and women involved forced her to.

Later, the girl and the young man were arrested and the prosecution opened an investigation. However, these repeated incidents are considered by human rights defenders as evidence that women are not receiving the necessary protection in Egypt, and that they are forced into not talking about rape or harassment.