Egypt’s Ongoing Crackdowns: Prison Sentence for Activist Denouncing Sexual Harassment

The case of Amal Fathy, a civil rights activist sentenced to two years in prison for calling on the government to prevent the sexual harassment of women, epitomizes the attack on free expression across the Middle East.
Amal Fathy and her Husband Mohamed Lotfy

34-year-old Amal Fathy was arrested in Cairo, tried, and sentenced to two years in prison for posting an “indecent” video, “spreading fake news and undermining national security.”

Egypt’s prosecution of an Egyptian woman for denouncing sexual harassment has caused international outcry. 34-year-old Amal Fathy was arrested in Cairo, tried, and sentenced to two years in prison for posting an “indecent” video, “spreading fake news and undermining national security.” Fathy was originally sentenced in September in a judgment suspended pending an appeal. On December 30, an appellate court upheld the lower court’s verdict and sentence.

Fathy maintained that she had suffered two separate instances of sexual harassment on the same day. She posted a 12-minute video (since removed from the internet) documenting them on social media and criticizing the Egyptian government for failing to protect women.

She claimed that the situation in the country has worsened in recent years: “In the past, things used to be better. Women could go out in a miniskirt in the street and no one would dare look at them.” In the video, Fathy blamed deteriorating human rights standards, socio-economic conditions, and the lack of adequate public services for the sorry state of women’s rights in Egypt today. Her comments in the video are why Fathy is now locked up in an Egyptian jail.

Amnesty International called the sentence an “outrageous injustice.” Najia Bounaim, Amnesty’s North Africa campaigns director, said, “The fact that a survivor of sexual harassment is being punished with a two-year prison sentence simply for speaking out about her experience is utterly disgraceful.”

Other women’s rights watchdogs have echoed the sentiment, arguing that Fathy, a victim of sexual harassment who complained about her own victimization and the lack of safety and protection for women in general, is now being victimized again and her speech suppressed by the state that is supposed to protect its citizens.

Fathy’s husband is human rights lawyer Mohamed Lotfi, head of the independent Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), of which Fathy herself is a member. Lotfi says that his wife is not the only victim of the current government’s attack on dissidents.

“The charge is [intended] to silence anyone who disagrees. The authorities use it to punish anyone with a different opinion,” he told the BBC. Terms such as “fake news” are seen by many to be nothing more than a tool for silencing those who think differently.

The government maintains that its apparent crackdown on dissent is necessary to “fight rumors” that “destabilize” the country. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi last summer cited “21,000 rumours in three months” which he says were intended to “creat[e] confusion.”

Such pronouncements by political leaders are so perfectly Orwellian they almost defy parody. George Orwell, who incidentally died 69 years ago this month, once said that “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Those who believe in intellectual freedom ought to be extremely concerned about the attack on free expression in Egypt and across the Middle East today.

Al-Sisi’s administration, which took power in a coup d’état in 2014 and has ruled Egypt autocratically since, has also shut down hundreds of websites in recent years, including those of news organizations and human rights groups. Yet the government denies that these policies are part of an assault on freedom of expression in Egypt.

“I don’t see any systematic ban against certain opinions,” says Makram Mohamed Ahmed of the government’s Supreme Council of Media Regulations, “but those who make up false stories will be held accountable, whether they’re journalists or not.”

Fathy’s case is a textbook example of authoritarian repression of free thought. Her imprisonment is reminiscent not only of George Orwell’s 1984 but is also grimly Kafkaesque. Despite paying the $1,120 bail for her release after her original sentencing, she was nonetheless kept in custody, held on separate charges including “belonging to a terrorist group.”

Chillingly, Mohamed Lotfi said that he does not know what these charges refer to and that the couple were never informed of them. One might speculate that at least one of the charges related to her activities as a political dissident. Fathy is well known as an activist and was an organizer in the April 6 Movement that was at the forefront of the 2011 uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak.

Cases like this one are indicative of a worrying anti-democratic trend in the region following the more or less outright failure of the uprisings described as the Arab Spring, which began in 2011. Indeed, this trend follows the increasing threat to free expression worldwide. It is depressing to reflect that this movement, born out of protests such as those in Tahrir Square in Cairo, failed to deliver on its early potential. Rather than replacing the dictatorships with democratic systems, as many of the young protesters had hoped, the region has seen the rise of new dictators and military juntas as well as a huge increase in Islamist extremism. Indeed, many of the Sisi government’s repressive policies are ostensibly intended as measures against the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the fundamentalist organization that profited most in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Mubarak.

However, both the current Egyptian regime and regional societal forces like the Brotherhood present serious threats to free expression and women’s rights, the two areas in which Amal Fathy’s rights have been stripped away.

Equality for women, free expression, and the innovative, critical thinking that comes with it, are essential cornerstones of democracy, freedom, and economic development.    

The current trend toward authoritarianism, as revealed by brave dissident voices such as Amal Fathy’s, is undoubted. But there is another story, one not often told these days. Opposition to dictatorship and Islamist conservatism has deep roots in Egypt. Many Egyptians have been sharing videos and articles recently in support of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, a reformer who served from 1954 until 1970.

President Nasser is seen describing his meeting with the then-leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who requested that he impose certain authoritarian laws, such as a mandatory headscarf requirement for all Egyptian women.

In one viral video, President Nasser is seen describing his meeting with the then-leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who requested that he impose certain authoritarian laws, such as a mandatory headscarf requirement for all Egyptian women. Nasser and the audience laughed raucously at the absurdity of such a suggestion.

Although no one is laughing now, such moments are a testament to the progressive potential in Egypt and across the Middle East and are signs of a radical liberal tradition that reared its head briefly in 2011 and will undoubtedly do so again. When it does, the likes of Amal Fathy will be regarded as the heroes who brought that change about. Until that day, it is incumbent upon all who believe in human rights to stand with her and everyone like her in their struggle.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.