Egyptian forces using sexual violence to control civil society

Protesters march on Tahrir Square. (Credit: Gigi Ibrahim/flickr)

Sexual violence perpetrated by Egyptian security forces increased following the military’s takeover in July 2013, according to a new report. Attacks are used as a way to maintain power over women, opposition members and activists in the country, says the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). Perpetrators are rarely punished, despite rhetoric from the General el-Sisi regime about reducing sexual violence.

“Sexual violence practiced by law enforcement officers in Egypt has never stopped, it has never been condemned. What has changed is the scale of the arrests which increases the number of cases of sexual assault,” said an Egyptian activist interviewed for the report.

But it is not an issue of assaults experienced by people after they are arrested. The increased security presence across the country means Egyptians face sexual violence outside of police stations. Witnesses and victims cited attacks at hospitals, universities, public transportation and police checkpoints. Given the scale of the problem and the lack of accountability, FIDH worries that the situation may grow worse as it “fosters and fuels further violence by state actors and civilians.”

“The scale of sexual violence occurring during arrests and in detention, the similarities in the methods used and the general impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators point to a cynical political strategy aimed at stifling civil society and silencing all opposition,” said Karim Lahidji, FIDH president, in a statement.

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The report includes excerpts from interviews with victims conducted by news organizations and Egyptian rights groups. Security forces use their power to strip, grope and sexually assault women doing a range of things from attending political rallies to going to school. Attempts to deflect groping often failed. Some people were forced to endure arbitrary anal and vaginal “virginity tests.” And cases of rape were reported.

The attacks make it unsafe for activists, particularly women, to participate in political events and rallies that are in opposition to the military government. It is a part of overall crackdowns on civil society, according to the report. Nongovernment organizations were forced to register under what critics call a repressive law, in July 2014.

“These repressive measures against independent human rights organizations have contributed significantly to restricting public space,” says the report.

In fact, many of the accounts included in the FIDH report are unverified. The unsafe situation makes it hard for human rights organizations to investigate reports of sexual assaults. But the preponderance of evidence is impossible to ignore. One human rights group received 14 reports of young boys who were victims of sexual assaults.

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“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 percent, it is unlikely to dent President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s popularity at home,” wrote Shereen El Feki, in the Guardian about the report.

All of this violates the spirit of the new Egyptian constitution. Adopted in January 2014, it says that the government must act to ensure that the rights of both men and women are equally protected. The findings show that the current government is not living up to its constitutional obligations and may be violating them directly.

“Beyond token measures, the Egyptian authorities have failed to take action to prevent torture and other forms of sexual violence. They have further violated obligations to effectively investigate, prosecute and sanction perpetrators and to provide redress and reparation to survivors,” says the report.

“FIDH calls on the Egyptian authorities to publicly condemn all forms of sexual and gender-based violence perpetrated by state or non-state actors and go beyond token and piecemeal measures in order to effectively prevent sexual violence and protect victims, including by ending impunity.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.