Egypt's nexus of politics and sexual violence

Egypt's nexus of politics and sexual violence
Blog: A new human rights report accuses Egyptian authorities of using sexual violence as a political tool, and highlights the failure of the political system, writes Imogen Lambert.
5 min read
22 May, 2015
Protesters brandish knives during a demonstration against sexual violence in 2013 [AFP]

The Egyptian film al-Karnak is renowned for emphasising the abuses of the Nasser regime.

In the film, actor Soad Hosny plays Zaynib, a woman who is raped by a security officer in an attempt to extract a fraudulent confession. For many Egyptians, the scene is emblematic of the cruelty that Nasser's regime was capable of.

A recent report by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIHD) has shown that such cases of sexual violence perpetrated by the Egyptian authorities did not cease in the 1960s, but have surged since the military takeover of Egypt in 2013.  

The findings of the report, issued on Tuesday 19 May, add considerable weight to the argument many have been making for quite some time: that sexual violence in Egypt is used as a recurrent political tool by the authorities to quell dissent.

Yet it is also a tool wielded by those who lack real authority - including the Egypt state, which has long been unwilling to unlock the power of persuasion to gain power and legitimacy through genuine democratic means, and so have resorted to force and abuse.

It represents the failure of the political system in Egypt.

     Of the twenty to thirty people who raped me, very few of them could have just suddenly become so angry
- Hannah Elsisi

Throughout the military transition following the
revolution, female protesters were systematically attacked during demonstrations against the regime.  

This aroused suspicion, insofar as the attacks could be distinguished from everyday harassment.

While I was working in Cairo during this time, I experienced, and witnessed mob assaults during clashes with Egyptian security forces. Certain aspects of the assaults - their striking similarity, targeted nature, and the behaviour and manner of the perpetrators - led many to believe that the attacks were orchestrated.  

Taking orders

Hannah Elsisi, whose assault was broadcast live on state TV, recounted being raped during a protest outside the Israeli embassy in September 2011.

"Of the twenty to thirty people who raped me, very few of them could have just suddenly become so angry," she said.

Relating that her attackers clearly appeared to be taking directions from a superior at the scene, she concluded: "It was a tactic."

Some noted that the relentless attacks would successfully clear the protests, particularly of women, middle classes, foreign journalists and observers. Using such assaults - which officials later claimed were carried out by other protesters - to clear demonstrations made for better PR than shooting protesters en-masse. 

As the report has gone some way to confirm, the assaults aimed to "eliminate public protest". 

Despite investigations that found men who admitted to being paid to attack women in protests, and well-documented abuses, such as the "virginity tests" carried out by the military on protesters during the 2011 revolution, much of the Egyptian populace remain sceptical.

This was not helped by influential parts of the Egyptian media, notably infamous talk show host Tawfik Okash who blamed women for attending protests.

The media also reported conspiracy theories - that these attacks were carried out by "outsiders" to destroy the revolution.

Crimes of the system

Contrarily, sections of the Western media often contextualised the attacks with an orientalist lens, painting them as symptomatic of an irrational sexism in the Arab world, especially when the victim was a foreign woman.  

They were crimes of the security apparatus, carried out in public, under a disguise of civilian clothing.  

But they also started to attract criticism from the public, leading to Sisi's farcical visit to a hospitalised victim of an assault in 2013, and pledges that harassment would no longer be tolerated.  

"My that they [Sisi and the police] are trying to contain it [assaults] as a street phenomenon in daylight," Hannah said.  

However, as the FIHD report relates, as public protest was clamped down on, the crimes have moved away from the media spotlight and into police stations, universities and checkpoints.  

Conversely, the perpetrator's faces are clearer than ever.

Members of the police, intelligence apparatus and the military have all been implicated in systematic sexual assault that "point to a cynical political strategy aimed at stifling civil society and silencing all opposition", said FIHD.


The testimonies of the victims in the reports makes for harrowing reading: There is a woman who was raped in a police station in front of her husband to elicit a confession from him, students at al-Azhar who reported invasive body searches and forced veil-removal, and young men who had their genitals electrocuted in police stations.  

Another student at al-Azhar who tried to intervene in a case of sexual harassment by a police officer was raped until she vomited blood, the report read, while a child detainee in El Eqabiya prison was forced to swallow pieces of sandal and was hospitalised with injuries from sexual assault.  


'Power' is perhaps the operative word. This makes the prevalence of sexual violence in Egypt so deeply political.

"Sexual assault is virtually systematic in the case of arrest," an annonymous member of a women's rights organisation said.

Using sexual violence as a political tool reinforces and maintains the distinction between street harassment, domestic abuse and sexual violence committed by the state.

However, we must still bear in the mind the wider - and global - context of discrimination against women that links these crimes today.

The report's detailing of the increase in sexual violence since Sisi's take-over should also be seen in the context of Egypt's return to a strong police state, as the chaotic years following the revolution saw the security apparatus at times - at least appear - weakened and disorganised.  

Ultimately, sexual violence has been prevalent in society as a result of being a political tool of every administration of modern Egypt, from Nasr to Sadat, to Morsi and Sisi.

"For working class women, this is old news", Hannah stresses. "They are attacked by anyone who has power over them".

"Power" is perhaps the operative word, and in some ways this makes the prevalence of sexual violence in Egypt so deeply political.  

On the other hand it often demonstrates a void, created by the failure of genuine politics and social empowerment; a void that is filled with violence, of the most personal kind, whether manifested between husband and wife, or police officer and detainee.

Possibly, when authority and power relies on the consent of an empowered polity, and not on the practice and threat of violence, the rape of Zaynib will cease to reflect an awful reality.