Are female students safe in Egyptian universities?

On April 6, Gaber Nassar, president of Cairo University, is to sign a cooperation protocol with the “Shoft Taharosh” movement (Arabic for “I’ve been a witness to harassment”) which was founded in Cairo in 2012. According to the group’s coordinator Fathi Farid, the protocol would allow members of the movement to be constantly present across Cairo University’s grounds to document cases of sexual harassment and to conduct surveys with female students about previous experiences of sexual harassment by male colleagues. “The Ministry of Higher Education, the university president, and university security have to facilitate the movement’s job and cooperate with volunteers who would be raising awareness on campus about the dangers of harassment and ways to fight it,” Farid said in a press interview.

The protocol is to be signed between Nassar and movement representative Azza Kamel. According to Nassar, members of the group are to obtain special IDs that will enable them to enter the campus. “They will soon come to my office to complete the necessary paperwork in order to start their work on university grounds,” he said in a TV interview.

Pink top, blonde hair

This news comes in the aftermath of a sexual harassment incident against a female student on campus which made international headlines. The movement, which identifies itself as “a pressure group that works on monitoring and documenting sexual harassment crimes against women,” was the first to report the incident.

According to the statement it issued, dozens of male students surrounded a female student near Cairo University’s School of Law on March 16 and harassed her. “They first harassed her verbally then started touching her and attempted to strip her of her clothes,” said the statement.

“The girl had to hide in the ladies room until security personnel were able to save her and get her out of campus.” While mediareports and the university president referred to the incident as unprecedented, the movement stressed in the same statement that “this is not the first incident of its kind” and that female students have always been subjected to different forms of sexual harassment on campus.

The incident triggered angry reactions among intellectuals and rights activists not only due to the nature and context of the incident, but also due to many of the responses that followed. The most controversial response was that of Nassar himself when he gave a phone interview live on TV a day after the assault took place.

According to Nassar, the girl, who is shown in the video wearing black pants and a pink top, was wearing a loose garment and took it off upon entering campus. “University security does not admit students wearing improper clothes,” he said. “Students’ clothes have to be in line with society’s traditions and we will never allow otherwise to happen.”

Blaming the victim

Responding to Nassar in the same talk show, Farid expressed his shock at the university president’s push to blame the victim instead of acknowledging his moral responsibility for her and objected to his statement about the university administration’s intention to take disciplinary action against the girl and the men who assaulted her. He also refuted Nassar’s allegations about the incident being a first. “A year ago a student from the School of Engineering was sentenced to a month in jail and this was in the press and everyone knew about it,” he said. “He is clearly not doing his job properly at the university.” Farid added that the movement receives dozens of complaints from female students who are harassed by their male colleagues and sometimes by their professors.

On March 19, Nassar issued a statement in which he fully condemned the harassment incident. “The perpetrators of this crime have to be penalized and the victim is not to be blamed at all,” said the statement. “There is nothing that justifies such a crime.” Nassar apologized for his comments on the victim’s clothes, which he attributed to the tension caused by the magnitude of the incident. “I also want to stress that the girl is not to be subjected to any disciplinary action. She will only be summoned to give her testimony about the incident.” He also called in a TV interview upon all students who were witnesses to the incidents to give their testimony and pointed out that students involved in the assault could be subject to dismissal from the university.

While Nassar’s change in stance was welcomed by women rights organizations, which had earlier described his initial response as “regressive,” the reaction of male students interviewed by several media outlets was considered shocking.

Public opinion

In a survey conducted by the Egyptian daily independent al-Shorouk, one of the students, while stressing that the victim was not wearing a loose garment on top of her clothes as claimed by Nassar, blamed university security for admitting her into campus “in such improper clothes.” He also said that what the boys did should not be considered harassment.

In another survey conducted by the news website Veto Gate, a student who witnessed the incident blamed the victim for her “extremely provocative outfit.” When asked if he ever thought of reporting the incident to the dean, he said: “Why should I report it? She had it coming. She provoked the people.” Another student blamed the victim’s parents “for allowing her to go out like this.”

The most shocking response, however, was that of TV talk show host Tamer Amin who referred to the victim’s outfit as “seductive,” “revealing,” and “slutty” and to the attackers as “sexually frustrated” and “miserable” while also blaming both her parents and university security.

Amin criticized the university administration for not being firm enough with the girl and argued that clothes are not a matter of personal freedom. “She is free to wear whatever she wants or not to wear anything at all when she’s out spending the night at bars and whorehouses, but not in state-supervised institutions,” he said. “She was obviously going to campus for another reason that is not related to education.”

Victim’s fear

“If there ever was a case that demonstrated the senselessness of victim-blaming in sexual harassment, it is that of Egypt,” wrote Hannah Somerville in The Independent last week.

In her article entitled “Sadly, this poor woman’s experience at Cairo University is all too common in Egypt,” Somerville noted that a recent U.N. survey revealed that almost 99% of Egyptian women have been subjected to sexual harassment. She, however, expresses her surprise at the lack of official records for the number of harassment incidents owing to women’s fear of exposure.

“Strikingly, the majority of data on the topic comes from NGOs and international organizations, for the simple reason that many women do not report such events to the police,” she added.

In an article entitled “The streets belong to them – women should stay at home,” published in al-Masry al-Youm on March 19, writer Rania Ibrahim linked the Cairo University incident to the general allocation of space between men and women in the Egyptian society.

She recalls seeing a group of young men celebrating New Year’s Eve in the streets while she, driving back home at the same time, made sure she locked her car door so that none of them would be able to assault her.

“While men are out celebrating, thousands of women are at home for fear of going out and being harassed and very few take the risk,” she wrote.

“The city’s nightlife belongs to men because they can do whatever they want without being assaulted or intimidated.” The Cairo University incident, Ibrahim argued, proves that the spaces women have been “allocated” by Egyptian society are getting more and more limited.

“Women are now threatened not only in the streets or in public transportation, but also in their work or study places,” Ibrahim said, adding that women in Egypt are seemingly allowed to practice their rights while in reality they are being deprived of them.

“It’s as if women are allowed to leave their homes under unspoken societal terms: you can work and get an education, but be prepared to bear the consequences if you are humiliated or sexually assaulted while doing so.”

Egypt’s elections law: back to square one?

This week, human rights lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali retracted his decision to run for Egypt’s 2014 elections, citing serious reservations about the new presidential election law. Ali objected to Article 7 of the law, which makes the decisions of the Presidential Elections Committee immune to appeals.

“A candidate who is deemed unqualified by the committee has the right to go to court. If the results are rigged, they have to be contested,” Ali said in the press conference he held to announce his withdrawal. “This is not only in the best interest of candidates, but also of the Egyptian people.”

Ali did not approve of Article 18 of the law, which gives candidates only 30 days to campaign, including meetings, flyers and posters, media outlets, and other activities “permitted by law.” Ali said if members of a candidate’s campaign engage in any kind of gathering seen by the authorities as a form of campaigning before the specified time, they can be arrested under the protest and assembly law.

The same timeframe applies to receiving funds. “How am I supposed to tour all Egypt and collect donations within this short time?” he asked. Ali attributed this article to the state’s reluctance to give “other candidates” the chance to promote their programs.

Article 28 is equally problematic for Ali, as members of the candidate’s campaign in subsidiary polling stations will not be given a copy of the results, as was the case in the 2012 elections. They will only receive reports of the results in the main polling stations, which does not allow them to monitor the process of adding up votes.

Article 1, which lists the qualifications of a presidential candidate, is also of major concern to Ali, as candidates must have a university degree. “So you automatically assume that people who don’t get a university education are unqualified? You’re the ones who spread illiteracy and ruined the education process,” he said, addressing the state. Ali cited the example of prominent Egyptian journalist and writer Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who does not have a university degree.

Ali also objected to another condition in the same article, which stipulates that the presidential candidate should not suffer from any “physical or mental diseases” that would affect his performance. This would be decided by the health committee appointed by the state. “Is there a list of such diseases?” Ali asked.

“I’m not announcing my withdrawal from the elections. I’m refusing to take part in a charade whose end we all know is predetermined,” he concluded.

Appealing to appeal

Presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi sent an open letter, dated March 12, to interim President Adli Mansour asking him to reconsider the immunity given to the Presidential Elections Committee. Sabahi expressed his surprise, which he said is shared by the majority of political factions and legal experts, at not allowing the committee’s decisions to be appealed.

He said Article 7 violates Article 97 of the Egyptian constitution, which states that litigation is a right guaranteed to all, that the state is committed to facilitating the litigation process, and that granting immunity to any act or decision is forbidden.

“Violating the constitution less than two months after it was approved is not acceptable and not in the country’s best interest,” wrote Sabahi. “It makes the constitution, in which we invested a lot of time and effort, sheer ink on paper, and invites distrust in the Egyptian state on both the local and international levels.”

He refuted claims that the article brings more stability to Egypt following the declaration of election results. According to Sabahi, while the decisions of the Presidential Elections Committee cannot be appealed, a lawsuit can be filed at the Supreme Constitutional Court against the law according to which the president is elected. “Then, too, the legitimacy of the elected president will be questioned and stability is not expected to prevail.”

Constitutional legality

Prominent constitutional expert Nour Farahat said: “I was extremely surprised when I read the law. How come a law that violates the constitution is issued in a country that witnessed two revolutions and is ruled by the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court?”

Farahat said the principle of immunity was unacceptable during the rule of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, but is being approved now. “No man of law with a clear professional conscience could ever accept that,” Farahat said.

He added that while Egypt is struggling to prove that the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood was the result of a popular revolution rather than a military coup, this law makes matters worse. “The article makes it seem to the international community that the law is tailored for one particular candidate.”

Ayman Salama, a professor of international law, seconded Farahat’s opinion. “All citizens have the right to appeal decisions made by different judicial bodies,” he said. “This right is not only safeguarded by the constitution, but also by international law.”

For judge Ali Awad, the president’s advisor for constitutional affairs, the law is the most adequate for the critical stage through which Egypt is going. “Egypt is going through a tough time as far as security is concerned, and we need to be practical in order to complete the electoral process within the time limit specified in the post-June 30 roadmap,” he said.

Awad said appealing the committee’s decisions would result in a lengthy legal process that would leave Egypt in a political vacuum, resulting in more chaos. He denied that Article 7 violates the constitution, but did not elaborate.

Law professor and constitutional expert Shawki al-Sayed said even though the committee’s decisions cannot be appealed before courts, this does not mean they are absolutely irreversible. “The committee’s decisions can still be appealed before the committee itself, since it’s considered an independent judicial body characterized by neutrality,” he said.

Judge Mohamed Hamed al-Gamal, former head of the State Council, said the article is necessary to prevent “certain factions” from disrupting the electoral process. “Those factions want to obstruct the roadmap and to delay the elections,” he said.

Islamist parties see the law and the withdrawal of Ali as evidence that the presidential elections will not be free or fair. Hamza Zobaa, official spokesman of the Freedom and Justice Party – the political arm of the Brotherhood – said the results are expected to be rigged in favor of army chief and Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

“When candidates withdraw, it means they realize that the electoral process is just a farce that Sisi initiated to deceive theworld into thinking that we have a real democracy,” Zobaa said. The ultra-conservative al-Watan Party shares the same view. “It is indeed a farce and Hamdeen Sabahi is part of it,” said party spokesman Ahmed Badei.

Egypt’s ban on Hamas: a political decision?

On March 4, the Cairo Urgent Matters Court banned the activities of Hamas, ordered the closure of its offices in Egyptand prohibited any kind of interaction with it. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by Egyptian lawyer Samir Sabry, if only partially. Sabry originally demanded that Hamas be designated a terrorist organization citing its affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood, now a terrorist organization in Egypt, and its designation as a terrorist organization by several countries across the world as well as the involvement of its members in storming Egyptian prisoners during the 2011 uprising and the group’s violation of the Gaza border. “I presented to the court 25 CDs that prove Hamas’s involvement in several terrorist operations in Egypt whether in the Sinai Peninsula or Cairo,” Sabry said in a TV interview. These operations, he explained, included the bombing of State Security headquarters in Cairo and Mansoura and the killing of Egyptian soldiers in Sinai. “I even submitted CDs that prove Hamas’ involvement in other atrocities inside the Gaza Strip, like torture.”

Based on the ruling, the ban applies to Hamas and all entities affiliated to it and funded or supported, financially or otherwise, by it. The ban in its current form is temporary pending the ruling on another case before the Cairo Criminal Court, in which Hamas faces charges of espionage and prison break. Unlike what is commonly believed, or what some media outlets had actually reported, Hamas has not been officially declared a terrorist organization as is the case with the Muslim Brotherhood and as was initially requested in Sabry’s lawsuit. Sabry, however, sees the current ruling, which he considers “historic,” as conveying the same meaning. “Banning Hamas’ activities is proof enough that it engaged in terrorist activities,” he said in a TV interview. The verdict, he added, is enough to ensure that Hamas will no longer pose a threat to Egypt. “Through this verdict, Hamas members will be denied entry into Egypt and the ones already in the country will be arrested,” he said. According to Sabry, this ruling is final and no one except the president, the prime minister and the interior minister can appeal it.

“This is a purely political verdict,” said senior Hamas member Mahmoud al-Zahhar. According to Zahhar, the verdict is void because the case is incomplete. “It was a one-sided case. Hamas was not given the chance to defend itself and refute the evidence presented against it,” he explained. Zahhar communicated an perceivable threat to Sabry. “One day, we will take him to task.” For Hamas member Yehia Moussa, the ruling tarnishes the image of Egypt rather than Hamas. “This is a grave affront to Egypt’s role in the Arab world and its history of supporting the Palestinian cause,” he said in an interview. “Plus, this is a punishment for the Palestinian people not Hamas.” Ezzat al-Rashq, a member of Hamas’s politburo agreed with the last point underlined by Moussa.

“This verdict means tightening the blockade against Palestinians in Gaza and increases the possibility of another Israeli aggression,” he said in a statement.

Both Zahhar and Moussa insisted that Hamas has no offices or activities in Egypt. “This is sheer propaganda,” said Moussa.

Muslim Brotherhood supporters outside Egypt condemned the ban with Rashed al-Ghanouchi, head of the Tunisian Islamist party al-Nahda considering it “an oppressive verdict by an oppressive regime” and the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan arguing that it is “an attempt to curry favor with the Zionists.”

French historian and expert on Arab affairs Jean-François Legrain saw the ruling as another battle in the war waged by the Egyptian state on the Muslim Brotherhood. “Hamas is paying the price for the regional conditions in the aftermath of the marginalization of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he told Le Monde. Legrain did not view this step to be in Israel’s interest as is commonly believed. “Israel does not want to get rid of Hamas because it is the only group that can control the Gaza Strip,” he explained. “True, it imposes a blockade on Gaza and makes life hard for Gazans, but does not incite them into getting rid of Hamas.” Mordechai Kedar, an Israeli professor of Arabic literature, argued. He added that the charges leveled against Hamas are fabricated. “I don’t believe Hamas collaborated with the Muslim Brotherhood to destroy Egypt. It is not in their interest to antagonize the Egyptian regime because if they do, they will lose an important source of fuel and foodstuffs in addition to the taxes they charge for these,” he wrote in Maariv. According to Kedar, the Egyptian regime was looking for an external enemy to blame for its failures and warned of the consequences. “If the regime becomes that harsh with Hamas, the group might start another wave of terrorist operations or might resort to Iran and this is not in Israel’s or Egypt’s interest.”

Those in favor…

The ruling was, however, seen as necessary by a number of Egyptian analysts. Security expert Colonel Khaled Okasha said the ruling was the right response to Hamas’s stance on Egypt since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Hamas preferred the Muslim Brotherhood over its relations with Egypt and they disregarded the will of the Egyptian people,” he said. “They acted as if they spoke on behalf of Egyptians when they called for Mursi’s return.”

Saeid al-Zant, head of the Center for Strategic Studies, argued that the verdict was late. “This verdict should have been passed as soon as it became known that Hamas took part in storming the prisons during the first days of the revolution,” he said. Professor of political science Gamal Salama pointed out that the verdict is not expected to have an effect on Hamas. “I think the only purpose of this ruling is to put pressure on Hamas so that it would stop interfering in Egypt’s domestic affairs,” he explained. The liberal Free Egyptians Party issued a statement welcoming the ruling as an important step in the war on terrorism. “It is time for everyone who plotted against Egypt to be punished and for everyone to know that Egypt will not be intimidated by extremist groups.” The statement downplayed the impact of the ban on the relationship between Egyptians and Palestinians. “The Egyptian and Palestinian people have historical relations that will not be affected by the terrorist activities of this group which falsely claims that it represents Palestinians,” the statement added.

On the official level, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy stressed that the ban on Hamas will not affect Egypt’s role in Palestinian reconciliation. Fahmy refused to comment on the ruling in respect of the independence of the judiciary. “The law is being implemented,” he said. “And no one is to threaten Egypt’s national interests, whether Hamas or anyone else.” Fahmy also stressed that Egyptian sentiments towards the Palestinian people remain unchanged. “We consider the Palestinians our brothers.”