Harassment of women may be getting more violent, but activists are fighting back

Cross posted from Egypt Independent.
Sexual harassment with a girl in the street

It is a sordid tale: A 16-year-old girl is groped while walking along the street. She responds by spitting in her attacker’s face, vowing to take back her rights. He, in turn, guns her down with an automatic weapon.

That is what is alleged to have happened to Eman Mostafa two weeks ago in a small village in Upper Egypt’s Assiut Governorate. While details of the incident have only slowly trickled out, the monstrosity of the alleged crime suggests a frightening increase in gendered violence following a spate of well-publicized cases of harassment and assault in recent months.

The suspect, Ramadan Nasser Salem, is now in police custody after having fled for more than a week. In an interview on Al-Hayat TV channel Saturday, he denied the version of events offered by witnesses.

“I was riding my motorbike and I saw her,” he said. “I said hello, and she thought I was harassing her and started cursing at me and spat in my face. I mistakenly fired my gun, and a passer-by told me the bullet hit a wall. We thought the girl was afraid and fell on the ground, but then people told us that the bullet hit her. I never meant to kill her.”

Salem’s denial notwithstanding, Dalia Abd El-Hameed, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, warns that the reported circumstances surrounding Mostafa’s death reflect a disturbing trend in sexual abuse against women.

“It’s becoming more violent, and this Assiut incident is a very vivid example of this,” she says. “He killed her. He killed her just because she defended herself. The mere fact was that she just didn’t accept what’s very accepted in society. When you don’t accept the norm, society punishes you. And he punished her.”

A 2010 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women have experienced harassment. In response, advocacy groups have pressed the government to tackle the issue.

Their efforts have produced an occasional glimmer of hope. In 2008, the government — for the first time — sentenced a man to three years in prison on a sexual harassment charge. In late 2010, 23 NGOs and human rights organizations teamed up in what was hailed as an unprecedented initiative to amend the Penal Code to more effectively address sexual harassment and assault, although their momentum was upended by the revolution.

And yet, by most accounts, the situation has only gotten worse. Some feel that in the past, perpetrators would flee the scene of the crime out of shame or fear of public backlash, but today’s perpetrators feel no such compunction.

Instead, silence by both the government and the public has enabled a much more virulent strain of abuse to take root.

“What is most disturbing and alarming is that there is a paradigm shift, and sexual harassment now tends more to be assault,” Abd El-Hameed says. “It’s more intrusive, it’s more bold, and I think this is the result of immunity and impunity that the perpetrators have from both the society and the police.”

More than that, she adds, police themselves have frequently been among the worst offenders.

The political and social instability of the last year and a half has also been an important factor, says Hoda Badran, chairwoman of the Alliance for Arab Women, as “women are more vulnerable than others to violence.”

Indeed, several high-profile sexual assaults have taken place at political rallies, most notably in Tahrir Square. But Badran argues that the situation is slowly improving as stability has gradually returned since the presidential election.

Activists working on the issue also point to small but substantive gains. The high-profile attacks in Cairo over the last few months helped spawn several grassroots initiatives aimed at bringing public awareness to the problem.

Their efforts were on display Sunday in a rally in front of the presidential palace co-organized by the social advocacy organization Basma and Nefsi, a Cairo-based anti-harassment group, to decry Mostafa’s death and demand a law specifically targeting sexual harassment and assault.

About two dozen protesters lined the sidewalk along the main boulevard at rush hour, holding signs bearing messages such as “I don’t want to be afraid when I walk in the streets,” and “Morsy, Morsy, where are you?” in reference to President Mohamed Morsy. Basma has also organized patrols in metro stations to identify sexual harassers and report them to police.

There is no shortage of idealism on the activists’ part.

At the rally Sunday, many passing motorists signaled their approval by giving protesters the thumbs up. Others were less impressed; several stopped to argue that women brought the problem onto themselves with their immodest dress.

But even as the activists wage an uphill battle to effect a measure of progress in Cairo, Mostafa’s case underscores the daunting breadth of the problem. In spite of the incident’s obvious shock value, it has generated scant media coverage and, with the exceptions of a demonstration at Assiut University last week and this week’s protest in Cairo, almost no public reaction.

That has not surprised Abd El-Hameed.

“Since we are a very urban-centric country, what happens in Upper Egypt doesn’t necessarily grab the attention of Cairo residents and the government, and so on. This is the first thing,” she says. “The second part is the socioeconomic status of the victim, and I guess it’s typical for people from the lowest wealth quintile to not be taken care of or to not get enough attention.”

Or, as she put it more simply: “[Mostafa] was poor, she was young, she was a girl and he’s from Upper Egypt.”

Mostafa’s father, Mostafa Salama, appealed directly to the president in an interview with Al-Hayat.

“I call on President Morsy to look at Upper Egypt and take care of it,” he says. “This is the man who spoke of God and the Prophet Mohamed, and we voted for him. Now he should take care of us.”

Although efforts at top-down reform have so far failed, recent legislative initiatives in Pakistan and India to protect women from harassment in the workplace suggest possible paths forward for Egypt.

In 2010, Pakistan for the first time defined sexual harassment in the law and required employers to create inquiry committees to look into allegations of it.

Earlier this month, India’s lower house of parliament passed a similar bill that would require employers and local authorities to establish grievance committees to investigate complaints of sexual harassment. It is expected to become law in the coming months.

While women’s rights advocates in Egypt have tended to eye Morsy warily, some still harbor hopes that he can deliver similar reforms.

“I think that Morsy wants to do something about the problem because it affects all women — secular, Islamist — but he faces a lot of obstacles and opponents,” says Nahil Zaghloul, an organizer with Basma.

But laws alone are unlikely to do much. Critics have lambasted the Pakistani government over its failures to effectively implement its statute.

Last year, the Asian Human Rights Commission complained in an open letter to Pakistan’s president and others that high-ranking government officials, including from the prime minister’s office and the lower house of parliament, were working to protect a well-connected university professor who had been found guilty of sexual harassment by two separate inquiry committees.

Huma Yusuf, a Pakistani commentator, underlined the magnitude of the challenge in Dawn newspaper.

“To take the law’s spirit and implementation seriously, the Pakistani state and activist network must overcome the cultural prejudices not only of the Pakistani public, but also of the world at large. It’s a tall task, but one that should not be neglected,” Yusuf wrote.

Likewise, Egyptian activists readily acknowledge that the root of the problem is not deficient policy — sexual harassment and assault are already technically illegal — but prevailing social norms that subjugate women and stigmatize those who speak out. And while the revolution’s aftermath has created additional challenges for women, it has also freed up grassroots organizations to more effectively wage a battle for public opinion.

“What happened now is that by mobilizing society as a whole during the revolution, you have a mobilized mass — part of it is being mobilized against sexual harassment and assault,” says Abd El-Hameed. “We have girls who make protests against sexual harassment, we have posters, we have graffiti — so we have diversity in the actors and the tools that are being used. And this can lead to addressing the root of the problem.”

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Egypt Unrest Undermines Welcome to Business

Cross posted from Forward.

Bad Timing: Just days after a key business promotion conference, Cairo was rocked by demonstrations over an anti-Islam YouTube video.

CAIRO — Just days before recent anti-American protests broke out around the U.S. embassy here, Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, the recently appointed head of Egypt’s new Islamist government, looked out at an audience of 100 American businesspeople, all comfortably ensconced in a well-appointed meeting room at Cairo’s four-star Conrad Hotel, and assured them of his government’s eagerness to welcome foreign investment.

The group — the largest American business delegation to visit Egypt since its 2011 revolution — included high-powered female executives and representatives of firms with important plants, research centers and other investments in Israel.

“We want you to come here to invest and make a profit,” Qandil told the American executives September 9. “We want you to come here, and enable you with an easy entrance and easy exit.”

Egypt’s Prime Minister Hisham Qandil addresses a large American business delegation to a conference in Cairo.

Nineteen months after the rebellion that sent shockwaves through the Middle East and the Egyptian economy cascading into crisis, Egypt’s government, dominated by the staunchly Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, is ardently wooing desperately needed international investment.

That courtship reached its apogee in early September with the visit of the U.S. business delegation, just before riots broke out in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East in reaction to a deliberately offensive anti-Muslim video screed that shadowy figures in America produced, dubbed into Arabic and uploaded to YouTube earlier in the month.

The sequence of events seemed to give ballast to critics who warned the business leaders they could be falling in prematurely with a government still hostile to Western interests, religious freedoms and Israel. Initially, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi failed to speak out strongly against the unrest, which saw violent protesters battle Egyptian police and breach the embassy walls. But following a phone call from President Barack Obama warning him that his country’s strong ties with the United States were at stake, Morsi condemned the attack and ordered police to put down subsequent violent gatherings.

Still, no one could say where that left the business leaders who, just days before, sounded so hopeful that Egypt was emerging as a safe place in which to invest.

“We remain strongly committed to continuing to invest and grow our business here as well as investing in the Egyptian community,” said G. Steven Farris, chairman of the U.S.-Egypt Business Council and CEO of Apache Corp., the largest American investor in Egypt, at the business gathering.

Thomas Nides, America’s deputy secretary of state for management and resources, also voiced optimism. “Egypt is open for business,” he told the delegates, offering the official Washington view. Members of the delegation, sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, represented 49 of America’s largest corporations, including Boeing, Citigroup, ExxonMobil and Microsoft.

The newfound confidence derived, ironically, from an unlikely source: Morsi, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed president. Morsi, a longtime member of the Brotherhood who resigned from the group’s Freedom and Justice Party only on assuming office at the end of June, became Egypt’s first head of state to be elected in a competitive democratic election. Since his June 30 inauguration, he has consolidated his power with breathtaking speed. After militants in Sinai killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in August, Morsi wrested back executive prerogatives from the country’s military, which had ruled Egypt since longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak was ousted as president in February 2011. He forced the retirement of the country’s two top generals and nullified a constitutional declaration issued by military leaders minutes after the close of voting in June that neutered the incoming president’s authority.

The clarified political landscape has, in fact, triggered a flurry of investment from abroad. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have pledged billions of dollars. China is expected to pour billions more into Egypt in loans and investments following Morsi’s visit to Beijing late in August. Meanwhile, Egypt is negotiating the terms of a $4.8 billion loan with the International Monetary Fund.

Now, the United States, Egypt’s largest single trade partner, is eager to get in on the act despite a Muslim Brotherhood-led government that it likely hoped to avoid. The Chamber of Commerce visit is just the latest evidence. America’s ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, opened dialogue with the Brotherhood last December in the midst of parliamentary elections that the Freedom and Justice Party dominated. In July, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held talks with Morsi during her visit to Egypt. The United States also welcomed a Brotherhood delegation to Washington in April as part of a much publicized charm offensive.

The Obama administration is currently negotiating with Egypt to eliminate about $1 billion of Egyptian debts. And Nides, the deputy secretary of state, announced during the Chamber of Commerce mission that the U.S. Overseas Investment Corporation will partner with the Egyptian investment group Abraaj Capital to invest $150 million in a fund aimed at boosting small and medium-sized Egyptian businesses.

Egypt is in urgent need of outside capital. The transitional period has seen its foreign currency reserves drop by more than half as foreign direct investment and tourism have nose-dived amid ongoing political turmoil.

Eric Trager, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a sharp critic of the Brotherhood, argues that U.S. encouragement of business development in Egypt without laying out clear expectations for the new Egyptian government is a mistake. “The administration’s general approach towards Egypt has been as if Egypt is a charity, not as if Egypt is a strategic partner from which we expect much in return,” he said.

According to Trager, Brotherhood leaders’ rhetoric on issues such as religious freedoms and relations with Israel should raise serious red flags. “When you ask them ‘Are you pro-business? Are you going to keep the qualifying industrial zones?’ — joint ventures with Israel that bring in roughly $2.3 billion a year — they say: ‘No, no, no. It’s more politically costly than economically beneficial.’”

But American government and business officials insist that a quick economic recovery is critical to political stability in Egypt and, by proxy, U.S. interests in the region. “A strong, successful Egypt is good for the region, good for America, good for the world,” Nides said.

Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at The American University in Cairo, likened the Brotherood’s neoliberal policies to those of the former president Mubarak. He added that he could not envision the current government altering Egyptian foreign policy in a substantive way. Any changes, he said, will be purely cosmetic.

“[Morsi] wants to have a relationship with Israel, but instead of having the Israeli officials photographed coming to meet him, now Israeli officials visit, but without the camera,” Sadek said. Likewise, Sadek dismissed concerns that Brotherhood officials would resist doing business with Jewish or female executives, pointing to the Brotherhood leadership’s long-standing ties with a wide range of American business and financial institutions.

The Brotherhood, from which Morsi and many of his top advisers hail, has advocated a free-market and free-trade agenda that, while controversial in Egypt, has helped ease foreign investors’ concerns. Its leadership is populated by wealthy businessmen like chief strategist Khairat El-Shater, a millionaire who made his fortune in textile and furniture trading. Shater memorably told Bloomberg last year, “We believe in a very, very big role for the private sector.”

An agreement on the $4.8 billion IMF loan would go a long way toward further reassuring investors. In his Chamber of Commerce presentation, Qandil expressed confidence that the loan would be finalized within the next couple of months.

But in fact, discussions have been held up since last year over internal rifts within the Egyptian government. The loan faces stiff domestic opposition. In order to obtain it, the government would likely have to agree to deep cuts to popular subsidies on which many poor and working class Egyptians depend.

That indecision is just one reminder of the uncertainty that still pervades Egyptian politics. Despite Morsi’s recent actions, question marks abound. The precise relationship between the civilian and military leadership remains unclear, a constitution has yet to be drafted and the country is without a parliament after it was dissolved in June under court order. New elections are expected later this year.

Qandil acknowledged this reality when he remarked that while he considers Egypt’s “confusion period” to be over, the transition continues. But the promises of calm waters ahead are clearly still tentative, as demonstrated by the hundreds of outraged Egyptians who swarmed around the U.S. embassy just as the U.S. business leaders were departing.

Doing Business With Mohamed Morsi

Cross posted from Forward.

More than 100 American business executives descended on Cairo to discuss new investments in Egypt’s beleaguered economy. The four-day mission, hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt and the U.S.-Egypt Business Council, contains representatives from some of the United States’ largest corporations, including Boeing, Citigroup, ExxonMobil, and Microsoft, along with officials from the Obama administration.

On Sunday, delegates met with Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president and more meetings are scheduled with members of Morsi’s cabinet, leaders of Egyptian political parties, and Egyptian business executives.

Talks have centered on reviving an Egyptian economy left moribund by last winter’s revolution and the ensuing political turmoil. Foreign currency reserves have dwindled to less than half of their pre-revolution levels, and the country’s critical tourism industry has shrunk by at least a third.

Nevertheless, leaders of the delegation sounded an optimistic tone. According to economic analysts, Morsi’s assumption of office after over 16 months of military rule has restored a measure of stability to the Egyptian financial landscape.

In his remarks at a welcome breakfast, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Thomas Nides declared Egypt “open for business,” while G. Steven Farris, the chairman of the U.S.-Egypt Business Council and CEO of the Apache Corporation, the largest American investor in Egypt, urged the U.S. and Egypt to move quickly toward a free trade agreement.

In the keynote address to the delegation on Sunday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil sought to reassure American executives of his government’s commitment to opening his country to increased foreign investment. “We want you to come here to invest and make profit,” he said. “We want you to come here and enable you with an easy entrance and easy exit.”

The U.S. is eager to shore up its relationship with Egypt after seeing its longtime ally Hosni Mubarak deposed last year in a popular uprising. The business mission is only the latest in a series of overtures the U.S. has made to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement from which President Morsi emerged and which has become the dominant political actor in post-Mubarak Egypt.

The mission comes against the backdrop of ongoing discussions between the U.S. and Egyptian governments to eliminate approximately $1 billion of Egyptian debts. Egypt is also in talks with the International Monetary Fund over the terms of a $4.8 billion loan package. Although those discussions have been held up since last year over internal rifts within the Egyptian government, Qandil expressed confidence on Sunday that a deal would be finalized within the next couple months.

“The Quiet American” now in Rolling Stone Middle East

“The Quiet American,” my feature about American Bob Bradley’s first year as Egyptian national soccer team coach, is in the new issue of Rolling Stone Middle East. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at Bradley’s efforts to navigate the treacherous worlds of Egyptian soccer and politics in the midst of Egypt’s historic upheavals. You can find copies of RS ME throughout the Gulf. A highly abbreviated version is up online, with the rest to appear in about a month. I’ll post again when the full version is up, but for now, check out the intro – a blow-by-blow account of the Port Said massacre in February – here.