'Tahrir Harassment' Trials End In Sexual Assault Convictions

Sexual assault convictions have been handed down to some Egyptian men, after several women were attacked during celebrations for incoming President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Audie Cornish speaks with freelance journalist Nadine Marroushi about the verdicts.

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In Arabic language media, it's called the Tahrir Harassment trial. In Cairo last week, seven men were sentenced to life in prison and another two will face 20 years for the sexual assault of women into Tahrir Square. Sexual assault, including rape, has been rampant at events in the square. It drew international attention during the political uprisings in 2011. But few of the perpetrators are ever brought to trial. The country's new president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has called for strict measures - those are his words - to crack down on assault. But activists question how sincere he is. To learn more, we turn to Nadine Marroushi. She's a freelance journalist in Cairo. She explained how these particular assaults received so much attention. One of them, last month, was caught on video.

NADINE MARROUSHI: A man in Tahrir Square filmed it on his phone and uploaded it onto YouTube and that video, which showed the bloodied and bruised, naked body of this woman being attacked in Tahrir Square. It went viral and it really caused a scandal because people saw for the first time what it was really like to be mob sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square. So that's the reason why it garnered so much attention this time. And why, given that it happened at rallies that were in support of Sisi - why the president felt that, really, he had to be seen to be doing something, given that women were a big support base for him.

CORNISH: So talk to us a little bit about what the president has actually done, in the short time he's been in office, to try and address the issue of sexual assault.

MARROUSHI: Firstly, it's been to acknowledge that these crimes actually happen. To make sure that a trial takes place and that the perpetrators of these crimes have been convicted. He went to visit the women in hospitals, which is a real, you know, acknowledgment that this woman needs respect. And he said, you know, that we'll get you your rights back. The police have expanded their violence against women units. I've heard that they are going to start, you know, a better patrolling unit during public holidays, during mass gatherings, so that the perpetrators of these crimes don't just walk freely. That they are caught and they feel somewhat afraid to even take part in these attacks.

CORNISH: And it's been widely reported that, as head of the military, President al-Sisi once approved so-called virginity tests for female protesters in Tahrir Square. Do people believe that this new effort is sincere or part of some kind of propaganda?

MARROUSHI: Well, no. A lot a female activists and female survivors of sexual violence crimes believe that a lot of the steps are just propaganda - efforts by the current regime, in order to kind of have a veneer of female friendliness. In fact, you know, ironically, the day before that video of the woman went viral, I met with senior police women of the Interior Ministry in Cairo, who denied that mob sexual assaults took place in Tahrir Square. And it left me feeling so depressed and my heart sank when I heard that. And then that night, the video went viral. And I just thought, you know, this completely, you know, sets the picture for what's wrong. You know, you have a state not fully acknowledging the problems that are happening within Egyptian society. And this is what leads to the problem just getting worse.

CORNISH: We should note, sexual harassment is not just a problem in Tahrir Square. In 2008, a survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Right found that 83 percent of Egyptian women had experienced sexual harassment. How widespread would you say this problem is in Egypt?

MARROUSHI: I mean, even more recently than the 2008 survey, Thomson Reuters issued a survey, in which it was found that Egypt was the worst place in the Arab world to be a woman. So it's a problem that happens across the country, not just in Tahrir Square. It happens on university campuses. It happens in rural areas and sexual harassment - you know, where women are stared at, where comments are made - is a day-to-day occurrence. You know, it's very hard to feel safe as a woman in Egypt.

CORNISH: Nadine Marroushi - she's a freelance journalist in Cairo. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

MARROUSHI: Thank you.

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