Amid last week’s uproar, now deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi issued a statement in English via top aide and advisor on foreign relations Essam el-Haddad, citing cases of sexual assault in or around Tahrir Square as evidence that “Tahrir crowds are out of control.”[1] Essam el-Haddad’s son, Gehad, took to Twitter, also in English, to stand up for the “protection of women.” With these moves, the Muslim Brotherhood sunk to a new low in its propaganda war against its detractors. But such moves are nothing compared to actual assaults on women—and these have been linked to Egyptian governments before Morsi and are likely to be so post-Morsi as well.

Indeed, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and beatings of women as tools of political violence in Egypt are nothing new. Mubarak employed these practices on multiple occasions, most notably by deploying vigilante elements to strip and sexually assault female journalists who were covering demonstrations against pro-regime constitutional amendments in 2005 in what became known as “Black Wednesday.” When domestic legal channels yielded no justice, the victims went to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. The Commission recently handed down a landmark decision in the case in which it proclaimed it “the duty of states to protect women from violence.”[2]

After Mubarak’s ouster, directed violence against women persisted throughout the military-led period and into the Morsi presidency, notably in the attacks that took place in the vicinity of the presidential palace in December 2012. These attacks again occurred when vigilante elements, who had been spurred to action by Brotherhood leader Essam el-Erian’s calls “to protect the president’s legitimacy,” assaulted protesters and journalists while police forces either failed to protect the victims or even assisted in the beatings. The attacks, which resulted in ten killed and over 700 injured, featured the singling out and harsh beatings of female protesters. This violence represented a continuation of the policy of attacking women with all forms of aggression by non-state actors as either supporters or agents of the regime. Through directly targeting women but also sending a chilling message to men about their loved ones' safety, the overall effect is to consolidate authoritarian power by exercising control of the public sphere.

The Muslim Brotherhood government further demonstrated its disdain for women through passing a constitution that rejected an antidiscrimination provision and instead inserted vague stipulations regarding the state’s role in “balancing” the “responsibility of women” toward family and their work in society.[3] Beyond constitutional failings, the Brotherhood attempted to reverse progressive laws passed during the Mubarak era under the pretext of purging the effects of the former corrupt regime, and it decried a United Nations instrument combating violence against women as "deceitful," stating that it would “lead to social disintegration.”[4] This institutionalized regression on women’s rights reflected more broadly the political and social role of women in Egypt’s new “public square.”

Despite these challenges, the 2011 revolution created an opportunity for Egypt’s women to claim public space alongside men—and they seized it. Women actively participated in civic duties, particularly in voting in Egypt’s series of post-revolutionary polls and in joining and leading protests during the troubled transition. Still, when it comes to freedom of movement and the safety and integrity of their bodies, women are facing a fierce counterattack on social and political gains made both before and since 2011, most clearly manifested in sexual violence against them.

With the growing crisis in law and order, and amid an atmosphere of impunity, a more aggressive pattern of sexual harassment and gang rapes has emerged. In recent months, women have been forcibly taken from the site of protests for the purpose of rape. Tahrir Square and the surrounding areas have been the center of terrifying assaults of tremendous brutality, with knives used to penetrate Egypt’s mothers and daughters. In November 2012, as demonstrations against Morsi’s constitutional declaration swelled, several documented gang rapes took place amid weak and disregarded condemnations. Worse, Islamist clerics such as Abo Islam took to the airwaves to state that the raped women had gone to these areas to deliberately seek out sexual fulfillment. The complicity and negligence of the state, evident in its outright public dismissal and failure to investigate or prosecute, allowed for an expanded scope of such crimes during the demonstrations that marked the second anniversary of the revolution two months later. Those protests resulted in 19 documented cases of rape with at least two requiring intensive medical treatment.

A preliminary assessment indicates that the attacks have taken on a habitual and systematic, organized nature. In many of these cases, patterns have emerged in which women are isolated, assaulted, and told that the other men in the vicinity, some with vehicles, are trying to save them—but then these men, too, partake in the assault. Despite attempts by groups such as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment to bring these rapes to the attention of relevant authorities by documenting these incidents, the government has taken no action. Instead, former prime minister Hesham Qandil placed the responsibility for the attacks firmly on the protesters,[5] indicating that such violence is a risk women have to bear should they choose to participate in demonstrations, thus abdicating the state’s responsibility to protect the right to peaceful assembly.

The trend of marked violence against women in public space has continued throughout the latest protests, though the Haddads seemed to indicate that such crimes are new. Gehad tweeted his “worry” regarding the more than 42 accounts of assault that Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment had documented by early last week, asking “Allah to protect Egypt’s women.” Timing such “concern” with his father’s Western-addressed remarks, which focused on the one alleged rape of a Dutch journalist out of seven rapes reported that night, demonstrated the Brotherhood’s shameless exploitation of a societal pathology in order to smear the opposition. Exploiting these crimes, which may involve its own supporters, for political gain was disgraceful even though they seem to have resonated with President Obama, who said, just days after Haddad's statement, that protests in which women are attacked cannot be considered "peaceful."[6] Meanwhile, such moves did little to boost the Brotherhood’s credibility regarding women's rights among Egyptians, who interpreted them as politically motivated for self-interest at a time of heightened legitimacy crisis.

The Muslim Brotherhood didn’t create the patriarchy in Egypt that fails to recognize women’s rights to fully participate in public life and fosters a space in which violence against women is prevalent. However, the Brotherhood’s time in power worsened the status of Egypt’s women. And military re-involvement in Egypt’s transition could mean continued setbacks. Current Minister of Defense Abdul Fattah al-Sisi infamously defended the SCAF “virginity test” scandal, in which military authorities allegedly sought to verify that female protestors they arrested were not virgins, putatively with the idea that these verifications would protect them from any accusations by the women that they had been raped while in custody. Al-Sisi shifted the discourse, claiming that the tests were also to “protect the girls from rape," though he later pledged such tests would no longer be conducted.[7] Still, women were assaulted throughout the SCAF-led interim period, and it was SCAF, after all, that appointed only men to draft amendments to Egypt’s constitution in 2011.

Egypt can be a hostile place for women despite the hard work of civil society to make it otherwise. As long as the public and those in power do not understand and support the intrinsic value of women’s participation in molding Egypt’s future, Egyptians’ hopes for “dignity” will remain elusive and women will continue to fear for their safety on the streets. But the roar of the chants of millions of Egyptian women calling for change is an important signal of what is hopefully the beginning of making a substantial improvement to their lives.


[1] Hend Kortam, “Essam el-Haddad: Tahrir Crowds are Out of Control,” Daily News Egypt, 30 June 2013, .

[2] Women Living Under Muslim Laws, “Egypt: The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights Holds the State of Egypt Accountable for Neglecting to Protect Women from Violence!,” 18 March 2013, .

[3] “Egypt Constitution Will be Bad News for Women, Activists Say,” USA Today, 13 January 2013, .

[4] Sarah el-Deeb, “Egypt’s Brotherhood Blasts UN Women’s Document,” Associated Press, 13 March 2013, .

[5] “Cairo Rape Video Highlights Plight of Women Protestors,” France 24, 3 February 2013, .

[6] Seth McLaughlin, “Obama Appeals for Restraint in Egyptian Protests,” Washington Times, 1 July 2013, .

[7] “Profile: Egyptian Armed Forces Chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi,” BBC, 3 July 2013, .