SHAFAQNA – Four years ago, Cairo was a giant billboard for human rights; the words “freedom”, “justice” and “dignity” were graffitied across the city, with the high hopes of Tahrir Square writ large on city streets. What remains today is a patchwork of paint covering up any hint of political protest.
This isn’t the only whitewash in Egypt now. According to a devastating report published today, state-sanctioned sexual violence against Egypt’s women has increased dramatically since the military returned to power in July 2013. In Exposing State Hypocrisy: Sexual Violence by Security Forces in Egypt, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) lays bare a vast array of sexualized torture by Egyptian police, military and state security forces. Interviews with scores of individual victims and NGOs in Egypt tell of sexual abuse at the hands of officials, ranging from harassment and rape to genital electrocution. And it’s not just women – members of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood and other political dissidents are being targeted, as well as run-of-the-mill arrestees, students and even children in juvenile detention.
There is nothing new in sexual violence being used by authoritarian regimes in Egypt and the wider Arab world. “To break his eye” is the local expression for humiliating someone, and sexual torture has been the instrument of choice throughout the ages. Because of the taboos surrounding sex in the region and its powerful association with shame, sexual violence is a particularly formidable tool of control. Women are especially vulnerable since their exploitation packs a one-two punch of not only disgracing them, but their families too; husbands, fathers and brothers are often still considered the guardians of female honour.
The FIDH report maintains that the current government has turned up the temperature on such violence, as part of a strategy of consolidating power and clamping down on the opposition. It describes state-sponsored sexual abuse, from university campuses to secret detention centres on military bases. Gay and transgender people are squarely in the line of fire, with a recent rise in arrests and sentencing — despite there being no law in Egypt explicitly criminalising same-sex activity or alternative gender identities. This, however, is more a question of political expediency than morality, allowing the government to walk a fine line between suppressing Islamist opposition and shoring up conservative support by cracking down on these often despised minorities.
By its own admission, FIDH has had trouble verifying many of its harrowing testimonials, as well as establishing the culpability of those accused. No wonder: Egyptian authorities are not exactly forthcoming on their failings these days. Authorities point to reforms, such as the country’s new sexual harassment law, as evidence of their strong stand against sexual violence – which FIDH lambasts as “hypocrisy”. Mervat Tallawy, the outgoing head of the country’s National Women’s Council, a governmental body charged with defending women’s rights, for example, famously observed that “it is impossible that a paramilitary organisation like the police would commit crimes of sexual violence in Egyptian prisons.” The devil is in the detail; activists point out that most such abuse is, in fact, meted out by other agencies of the state security apparatus.
On the other side, civil society is under pressure from all quarters, and matters are not helped by a rift between the Muslim Brotherhood and the wider community of NGOs, which makes independently documenting violations against the former all the more difficult. In any case, such is the sensitivity of publicly talking about sex that women are inclined to keep quiet about assault, often for the sake of family reputation. This is as true for domestic abuse as it is for state-sponsored violence. The national demographic and health survey released earlier this month, for example, found that upwards of 30% of wives in Egypt under the age of 50 have experienced some form of spousal violence, yet less than 5% sought help outside the family.
For those in power, sexual torture is an easy weapon to brutalise its victims; rape videos, for example, taken by officers on their mobile phones, are an especially potent brand of sexual blackmail and have a curious way of turning up on the internet. The very threat of these and other reprisals is often enough to deter victims from seeking redress from a legal system that is not exactly sympathetic to their claims in the first place.
If only a fraction of the accounts in the report were true, they would still constitute a damning indictment of the current regime, but with his approval ratings soaring above 80%, it is unlikely to dent President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s popularity at home. Egyptians, generally speaking, crave stability, which is why the 2011 uprisings were so unexpected, and why the vast majority have rallied around the latest strongman promising them a return to solid ground after years of upheaval.
For the most part, Egypt’s sharp rise in sexual violence in public spaces has been inflicted on its women; in 2013, a government study found that 99.3% of Egyptian women reported being harassed at some point in their lives. From widespread street-based harassment to the more than 600 recorded instances of mob rape in Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprisings, it is they who are bearing the brunt of the brutality without real relief in sight.
Most Egyptians I know, if not actively condoning the repression of those who jeopardize their last great hope of stability, are willing to turn a blind eye to the arbitrary arrests, mass detentions and questionable sentencing of those who are seen as threatening the system. My Egyptian grandmother had a saying for this philosophy: “So long as it is away from my ass, I don’t care.” In the case of state-sponsored sexual violence, this seems sadly true.