In a rare victory for women’s rights in Egypt, a 22-year-old student has been sentenced to three years in prison for sexually harassing two women using social media, Ahmed Bassem Zaki was arrested in July in Cairo, where he attended the elite American University.
Accusations against him sparked a wider MeToo campaign as women reported their experiences of sexual harassment, such harassment has been illegal in Egypt since 2014. The court, which tries cyber crimes, found Zaki guilty of sending pornographic photographs and texts to the women’s phones. He can appeal against the verdict, reports AFP news agency. He also faces charges of assault and blackmail against three underage girls, which will be tried in a criminal court in January. The case began in July when a succession of women posted anonymous allegations against Zaki on an Instagram account called Assault Police, many of them were his classmates and they alleged rape and assault as well as blackmail, including against girls as young as 14. Zaki was arrested and confessed to assaulting and blackmailing six women, but at the time he denied other charges.
A statement from the prosecutor general’s office said Zaki had admitted contacting six women via social media, receiving photos from them and then threatening to send the photos to their families after they chose to end contact with him. The case became notorious in Egypt, where women’s rights activists say that sexual assault is endemic, not taken seriously and members of the elite are often able to escape the law. In July a law was passed to give anonymity to victims of sexual abuse in response to the outpouring of allegations online. A study by UN Women in 2013 found that 99% of women they spoke to in Egypt had been sexually harassed, either verbally or physically, but there are few prosecutions for rape, and sexual harassment was only made illegal in 2014. One case that came to light through the Assault Police Instagram account was the alleged gang rape of a woman in a hotel in 2014 by a group of men from powerful families who, it was claimed, filmed themselves and circulated the video online.
Prosecutors ordered the arrest of several suspects in August this year, but witnesses and others associated with the case were also detained and reportedly subjected to invasive examinations. Activists said this gave women the message that reporting a rape or acting as a witness could put them at risk of arrest, but some activists in Egypt say that attitudes towards women’s rights and sexual assault are starting to change for the better. In July a number of celebrities and influencers spoke out in support of women making allegations against Zaki, and earlier this year the highest religious authority in the land, Al-Azhar Mosque, released a statement condemning sexual harassment, declaring that a woman’s clothing could never be a justification for assault.