In recent weeks, Egyptian dictator-cum-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been receiving praise from some unlikely quarters. His introduction of Egypt’s first laws against sexual harassment have been greeted by feminists and liberal, Western observers as a bold and progressive move to stem the endemic sexual harassment that is apparently plaguing Egyptian society. Egypt, we are told by Western NGOs, has a deeply rooted disdain for women, one that has a propensity to manifest itself in the groping of women in crowded public places. Such assaults have been particularly rife during the mass protests that have taken place since the Arab Spring.
The new legislation was rushed through by Sisi’s regime after his inauguration, when it emerged that there had been several assaults on women in the crowd that gathered to watch the ceremony. Sisi was quick to act: the following day, at a staged photo-op, he brought flowers to a woman who had been hospitalised after being attacked in Tahrir Square during his inauguration. By the woman’s bedside he announced to the gathered press that his government would be setting up a task force to tackle such assaults, and instructed police to prioritise enforcing them. The new law would replace legislation which criminalised ‘indecent assault’ with the broader and ill-defined crime of ‘sexual harassment’.
Sisi’s sudden concern for the bodily integrity of Egypt’s women seems strange in light of comments he made in 2012. Then a high-ranking general in the Egyptian army, he defended the practice of soldiers administering forced virginity tests to women in custody in order to protect his men from rape accusations.
Western newspapers, including the Guardian, welcomed the news of the new legislation, but expressed concern that Sisi may just be paying lip-service to the issue and said he would fail to enforce the new laws. They need not have worried: in the weeks since his inauguration, seven men have been sentenced to life in prison for the assault on the woman he visited in hospital.
Sisi is no doubt courting Western favour with these new laws. After sweeping to power in a bloody military coup against the democratically elected, albeit religiously conservative, Muslim Brotherhood government, Sisi received immediate support from the United States and the EU, among others. However, after heralding him as the restorer of freedom to Egypt, the Western powers were put in a somewhat awkward position when he promptly began massacring thousands of opposition protesters on the streets of Cairo, locking up unknown thousands of political rivals and sentencing many of them to death in mass show trials.