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From Instagram to Detention: Egyptians Demand Justice for Victims of Sexual Assault


FILE - A group of young men make loud jokes while three girls walk by them in Cairo, Egypt, June 15, 2018. (Hamada Elrasam/VOA)

It started at the beginning of July with a new Instagram account, AssaultPolice, which picked up 164,000 followers in less than two weeks.

Quickly, the account was barraged with posts accusing a former college student of harassing, assaulting or raping as many as 100 women and girls.

Two days later, Ahmed Bassam Zaki, a former student at the prestigious American University in Cairo (AUC) was arrested. He is now being held while authorities investigate six individual cases.

In the two weeks since his arrest, thousands of women and girls have sent official complaints about sexual harassment, assault, rape and other violence to the National Council for Women. Commentators are calling it Egypt’s #MeToo movement.

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“This proves social media can have a very big role if people participate,” said Heba Adel, an activist with the Egyptian Female Lawyers Initiative. “The reaction was swift. In 48 hours, they captured the accused.”

Heba Adel, a lawyer and activist from the Egyptian Female Lawyers Initiative, works in her office in downtown Cairo, July 9, 2020. (Hamada Elrasam/VOA)
Heba Adel, a lawyer and activist from the Egyptian Female Lawyers Initiative, works in her office in downtown Cairo, July 9, 2020. (Hamada Elrasam/VOA)

Lawmakers also acted uncharacteristically quickly, passing a bill that says victims’ names must be withheld from public documents to protect them from threats after they make an accusation.

A 2013 United Nations study shows that nearly all Egyptian women say at some point that they have been victims of some form of sexual harassment or abuse.

Women often do not report it because they fear retaliation, stigma or being blamed for the incident, said Myam Mahmoud, a 25-year-old model, who has been a victim of harassment.

“If you tell your family, you don’t know if you will be supported or not,” she said, holding a tote bag from another online anti-harassment program that maps incidents. “Or you may be beaten or touched again by the man who assaulted you.”

Myam Mahmoud shows her bag with Arabic text that says, “I’m not staying silent about sexual harassment," in Cairo, July 7, 2020. (Hamada Elrasam/VOA)
Myam Mahmoud shows her bag with Arabic text that says, “I’m not staying silent about sexual harassment," in Cairo, July 7, 2020. (Hamada Elrasam/VOA)

The case

Zaki’s family has said very little, but his father did tell one reporter from broadcaster MBC News that he thinks the charges are false and that this is an internet “pile-on.”

Online complaints have come from fellow students at AUC, as well as from students who went to his private high school.

Zaki has confessed to blackmailing women and girls but denies all other charges, according to prosecutors.

“He threaten(ed) them and other girls, as well to slander them by falsely accusing them of committing obscene acts,” said a statement on the Egyptian Public Prosecution’s official Facebook page.

VOA was unable to reach Zaki’s lawyer. In a statement on its website, AUC said without further comment that he is no longer a student.

Moving forward

On the AssaultPolice Instagram account, users are joyful that their online activism has led to some change.

“So proud,” said one post, which also said, “Women, rise up!”

Other users urged victims to keep reporting, saying, “The fight is not over!”

Karim Ezzat, an Egyptian lawyer who specializes in violence against women in Cairo, says, July 7, 2020, recently progress has been made, but there is much more to be done. (Hamada Elrasam/VOA)
Karim Ezzat, an Egyptian lawyer who specializes in violence against women in Cairo, says, July 7, 2020, recently progress has been made, but there is much more to be done. (Hamada Elrasam/VOA)

New accounts are popping up on other social media sites, where people are posting accusations against other alleged sexual abusers. Lawyers say the momentum will encourage more victims to report but that there is a lot more to do.

“There should be an independent department in the judiciary that only takes cases related to violence against women,” said Karim Ezzat, a lawyer who specializes in women’s issues. “And it should not only deal with rapes but with other violence and harassment, including between married couples.”

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