Egypt's Sisi faces challenge over 'sexual terrorism'

President-elect Abdel Fattah al-Sisi talks during his ceremony to be sworn in as president of Egypt, at the presidential palace in Cairo, on June 8, 2014 in this picture provided by the Egyptian Presidency. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
President-elect Abdel Fattah al-Sisi talks during his ceremony to be sworn in as president of Egypt, at the presidential palace in Cairo, on June 8, 2014 in this picture provided by the Egyptian Presidency. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

CAIRO (AFP) - A video of a woman being sexually assaulted at inaugural celebrations for Egypt's new president has spotlighted a national epidemic, but activists believe that stopping such attacks will be difficult.

Graphic footage, apparently filmed on Sunday using a mobile phone, shows a mob of men surrounding the young woman, who was stripped of her clothes and badly bruised in the assault in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square.

The video, shared widely on websites including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, triggered outrage in Egypt and abroad.

"Execute them!" said Tuesday's front-page headline in pro-government Al-Watan newspaper.

"Sexual assaults and rapes by mobs are now part of reality. How far will things go? This is sexual terrorism," said Zeinab Sabet, a prominent activist with "Dignity Without Borders", a group battling sexual violence.

"This has been happening since 2012... The fact that it happened again (on Sunday) shows that the authorities aren't even bothered about us," she told AFP.

Washington said it was "shocked and appalled" by the "horrific" video footage and called on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to take action.

"We urge the government to make good on its promise to do whatever it takes to combat sexual harassment and implement the new law that punishes convicted harassers," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Activists say at least nine cases of sexual assault were reported last week as revellers celebrated Sisi's presidential election victory.

One woman was burned by hot water after being stripped in Tahrir Square by three men who later also assaulted her daughter, the prosecutor's office said, adding the men had been detained.

Officials on Monday said police have also arrested seven men suspected of sexually assaulting women during Sisi celebrations.

Egypt, which until this month had no specific law on sexual harassment, last week approved penalties for such offences to include jail terms, fines or both.

But these amendments "were not enough... (as) the state was incapable of addressing such crimes in the absence of a comprehensive strategy," said a group of 25 Egyptian rights organisations.

On Tuesday, the presidency said Sisi had told interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim to "implement the law firmly" to prevent sexual harassment.

- 'Endemic levels' of abuse -

A 2013 study by the United Nations said more than 99 per cent of Egyptian women had been subject to some form of sexual abuse.

Women in the Arab world's most populous country said they were harassed regardless of whether they wore conservative Islamic attire or Western-style clothing.

Since the revolution that toppled long-time president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the problem has worsened, with women now regularly attacked during rallies by groups of men in and around Tahrir Square, the epicentre of protests.

Between November 2012 and June 2013, some 250 cases of sexual assault or harassment by mobs, or rapes involving weapons, were reported during protests in Cairo, activists say.

Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Tuesday that Egyptian women face "endemic levels" of sexual violence.

It said that "the authorities have taken little action to stop or investigate violence against women, or to bring those responsible to justice".

- 'Can't trust Sisi' -

Activists doubt that the regime under Sisi, who repeatedly reached out to women voters during his election campaign, could prevent such attacks which are part of a long-standing systemic problem.

"During his campaign, Sisi's comments regarding women's issues were farcical and vague," said Fathi Farid from "I Saw Harassment", a group fighting sexual violence.

"He didn't address controversial issues concerning women... He did not speak of the political, economic or social empowerment of women." Activists say Sisi cannot be trusted given his involvement in "virginity tests" during the 2011 revolt.

In early 2011, Sisi, then head of military intelligence, acknowledged to Amnesty International that detained women protesters faced "forced virginity tests".

"He said virginity tests were carried out to protect the army against possible allegations of rape, and added that the army does not intend to detain women again," Amnesty said at the time.

Activists believe that for Sisi, who has signalled his intention of restoring stability rather than pursuing democratic freedoms, the problem of sexual violence is not a priority.

"I can't trust a president who justified virginity tests in March 2011," said activist Sabet.

"I personally don't think that women's rights or dealing with mob sexual assaults on women and rape are part of his plans."

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