CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has ordered the interior minister to fight sexual harassment following the arrest of seven men for attacking women near Cairo’s Tahrir Square during his inauguration celebrations, his office said on Tuesday.
Egypt issued a new law last week which punishes sexual harassment with at least six months in jail or fines of at least 3,000 Egyptian pounds ($420). Judicial sources said the arrests were made under the new law.
Sunday night’s attacks took place as thousands of people enjoyed inauguration festivities, raising new worries about Egypt’s commitment to fighting sexual violence.
The arrests came after a graphic video was posted on YouTube on Sunday showing a naked woman with injuries on her hip being dragged through a large crowd towards an ambulance. It drew a massive public outcry and led further victims to come forward.
“President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi instructed the minister of interior... to vigorously enforce the law and take all necessary measures to combat sexual harassment, an unacceptable form of conduct,” the presidency said in a statement.
“The president calls on all citizens to undertake their part to reinstate the true spirit of ethical and moral values in Egyptian society... This should come in parallel with the state’s efforts to robustly enforce the law.”
Sexual assault was rampant at demonstrations during and after the 2011 uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak and has been common for a decade at large gatherings in Egypt.
Testimonies by some of the Tahrir Square victims made available to Reuters on Tuesday gave alarming details about the attacks.
“I was coming out of the square with my seven and nine-year old daughters when we saw a group of men rushing from a side street in our direction,” one woman told a state prosecutor.
“I begged them to let my daughters go and take me and they did, then tore my clothes with a knife and sexually assaulted me.” Another woman said five men dragged her away from the crowd and took off her trousers. Seven women encouraged by public sympathy for the victim seen in the YouTube video filed complaints saying they were also harassed during Sisi’s inauguration celebrations.
It is not clear whether the men arrested took part in the assault shown on the video. The Interior Ministry listed the names of the men, aged 15 to 49, and where they lived.
Prosecutors are detaining them pending investigations. Two of the men admitted beating a woman, while five denied any wrongdoing and said the women had provoked them, judicial sources said.
Sisi has frequently spoken highly of women and their importance to society. A police officer who rescued the victim of sexual harassment should be honored, he ordered, in an apparent reference to the woman in the video.
But some liberals were initially wary of Sisi, especially after remarks he made defending an army practice - later denied by an army court - of conducting “virginity tests” on female protesters who complained of abuse.
Many say Egyptian society as a whole needs to take sexual harassment more seriously. One female television presenter on a private channel giggled when her colleague mentioned the harassment in Tahrir. The people were simply “happy”, she said.
Sexual harassment, high rates of female genital cutting and a surge in violence after the Arab Spring uprisings have made Egypt the worst country in the Arab world to be a woman, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey showed late last year.
Editing by Alexandra Hudson