From the Arab Spring to ABZ

"Egypt Revolution Grafitti - 14" by Courtney Radsch

Content Warnings for mentions of sexual harassment and violence

In January of 2011, the Egyptian population witnessed an uprising like no other: people of all generations took to the streets to raise their voices in opposition to the social injustice that was rife nationwide. These protests and riots, spreading throughout the country in a wildfire of defiance, were catalysed by one outstanding factor: social media. Ten years on from the infamous revolution of the Arab Spring, social media remains a vital component in the struggles to combat inequality and oppression in Egypt.

Initially inspired by the riots in Tunisia, often dubbed the ‘Jasmine Revolution,’ the Egyptian people openly began to resist and critique the country’s dictatorship. This movement transpired at a time when the president, Hosni Mubarak, was sustaining his 30-year reign, with his son expected to follow in his path. Computer programmer Khaled Saeed’s death in police custody heightened the nation’s outrage towards the state’s repressive corruption.

Computer engineer and democratic activist Wael Ghonim galvanized the people in their anger through his website, ‘We are all Khaled Saeed,’ where he welcomed discussions on democracy and the state of human rights in the country. Simultaneously, after the forced removal of the Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a small group of online militants began to demand similar action in Egypt. It was through such group messages and forums that true opposition to the dictatorship began to find its voice. The 18 days of revolution which followed the initial outrage, which fittingly began on National Police Day, demonstrated the willpower of the Egyptian people.

It was social networking sites such as Twitter that spread knowledge of the incidents in Tunisia internationally and added ammunition to the fire already blazing within Egypt’s communities. The government recognised the monumental power of social media in inciting public action and blocked the internet nationally for five consecutive days in the hope of disrupting protestors’ plans. Yet, even with these attempts to impair national unity, sources and organizations for riots and opposition had already circulated on a national scale. Through the power of the internet and the ability to connect with one another virtually, Egyptian citizens could finally express their views and fight for their human rights – Hosni Mubarak renounced his presidency on the 11th of February 2011.

Ten years on from the unforgettable events of the Arab Spring, the country’s youth continue the fight for justice for its people through social media and have recently shone a light on the plight of Egyptian women. During the early months of the pandemic, several Instagram accounts with the shared goal of providing victims of assault and harassment in Egypt support and justice were created, catalysed by the exposure of the abuse and harassment to which countless women were subjected by Ahmed Bassem Zaki.

In 2018, a post concerning a woman's experience with Zaki, dubbed ‘ABZ’ by the media, initially appeared in a Facebook group chat under the name of ‘Rate AUC Professors.’ The group was an unofficial forum for one of Egypt’s most renowned universities, the American University of Cairo. The original post was deleted in 2020, along with numerous comments from other girls cataloguing similar “uncomfortable experiences” with Zaki. In July of 2020, the post resurfaced on the Instagram profile @assaultpolice.

Founded by Nadeen Ashraf, the @assaultpolice account aims to destigmatize conversations about the distressing rates of sexual abuse in Egypt and expose cases of harassment and rape. Ashraf was an acquaintance of Zaki and graduated last year with a degree in philosophy from the American University of Cairo. After noting the post’s removal from the page, she took to Instagram to publish the information and raise awareness of the case. The success of her Instagram account is not unlike that of Ghonim’s website for Saeed: once again, the Egyptian youth have capitalized on the virtual world to unite and fight against injustice.

The account’s administrators encouraged more victims of Zaki to submit their testimonies anonymously. In the span of a few days, over 150 allegations were made, including instances of blackmail, sexual harassment, assault, and rape. One survivor described how she was “only 13 or 14 at the time,” and how Zaki had attempted to blackmail her and her sister, claiming that he would “ruin” their lives. Others recounted horrific experiences with him during which he sought to emotionally manipulate them with pretences of suicidal thoughts and intentions in order to compel the women and girls to comply with his demands.

Endeavours to spread the news internationally soon came to fruition: several media corporations across the globe, including the BBC and The New York Times, reported on the accusations and on the militancy of the online revolution against sexual harassment in Egypt, fuelled by the determination of Egyptian youth to obtain justice for the survivors.

The work of @assaultpolice launched conversations about educational institutions enabling sexual exploitation and ignoring allegations made by female students. In this case, after compiling evidence and assisting the women in speaking to lawyers and legal teams, the profile succeeded in contacting the EU Business School regarding Zaki’s actions, resulting in his expulsion from the institution in Barcelona. This occurred only five days after the post was initially shared on the Instagram account. Merely one day later, the Egyptian Public Prosecution ordered the arrest of Zaki and launched an investigation into the allegations against him.

In December of 2020, the Egyptian criminal court ruled against Zaki, sentencing him to an initial three years of imprisonment for blackmail and threats. However, this failed to account for the allegations of sexual abuse and assault, and the court ruled that there would be a second hearing in the new year. Following the hearing in January of 2021, Ahmed Bassam Zaki was sentenced to eight years in prison, this time for sexual assault.  Following his arrest, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly introduced amendments to the law which entitle victims of sexual harassment and rape to anonymity, as an incentive for further survivors to speak out against their abusers.

Following the overwhelming social media support for women's rights during the unveiling of the allegations against Zaki, Amr Adib, host of popular television show Cairo Today, spoke directly to the public on the importance and value of consent. He provided them with a concise but concrete message: no means no. According to the 2017 records of Family Courts, marital rape is currently legal under Egyptian law, with over 60% of women falling victim to their husbands. Adib addressed Egypt’s unignorable issues with consent, and for a country rooted in conservative values, an active display rallying for women's rights on such a large scale allows for a glimmer of hope in the future of Egypt’s treatment of women.

Now, with over 400,000 followers, @assaultpolice uses its platform to highlight the inequalities embedded into Egyptian law and contests the normalization of sexual abuse and harassment in society. With such a substantial following, the account has the potential to spread awareness at an increasingly rapid pace, providing insight into other cases of sexual violence and harassment.

These are just several instances of the new generations of Egyptian youth using their privilege of internet access for good. In the past year, other social media profiles with similar aims have emerged. @catcallsofcairo is designed to call out problematic and harmful behaviour towards women in Egypt, from berating lewd and misogynistic cartoons in national newspapers, to providing a safe space for women to anonymously submit their daily experiences of harassment.

Other profiles, including @girlsofmaadi, target female empowerment and encourage them to pursue their ambitions and fight against gender inequality. Through educating future generations on the vital equality between genders, one can only hope that this will result in brighter and more promising prospects for the country’s female population. Young girls have been offered a platform upon which they can offer accounts of their personal experiences with misogyny, with some mentioning comparisons to male family members, whilst others expressed their frustration at the monumental injustice in the workplace.

According to the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index, economic opportunities for Egypt’s female population remain low, with only 24.7% of women working in labour, and a mere 7.1% pursuing roles in managerial positions. Differences in income also remain large, with men earning an average of three times more than women. This is reflective of some of the legal barriers thrust upon Egyptian women, who, for example, may not be able to own land or financial products.

As a developing country, Egypt is showing significant progress in terms of women in politics: figures for women in ministerial positions have increased by 12.2% since 2018. Whilst this is promising news, the country still has a fair way to go before it can consider itself as truly having countered the social injustice endured by its women.

In 2020, University student Hanin Hossam was sentenced to two years in prison following charges of violating public morals, after she posted videos of herself on the video-sharing app, TikTok. Accused of human trafficking after inviting her followers to earn money via another video sharing platform, the court ruled that she had encouraged the exploitation of female followers, despite there being no mention of any inappropriate content on her profile. Additionally, the prosecution stated that she had disregarded the morals of the country and had published indecent videos on her account, despite no part of her content violating the application’s guidelines. This discriminatory and unjust sentencing demonstrates the true divergence between the human rights of Egypt’s men and women: the country targets women with unwarranted claims of immorality, whilst simultaneously struggling to account for the disarming rates of sexual violence often inflicted upon them by men.

Yet, the power of social media remains unmatched; the ability to quickly spread vital information across the country, and in turn, the world, creates potential for significant change. Increasing numbers of Egyptian celebrities and influencers are taking to the internet to advocate for women's rights, hoping to instil a more progressive attitude into younger generations. Educational institutions are beginning to discuss sexual harassment and abuse and hold their students accountable for their actions. Media corporations are allowing for further coverage on such matters on a national scale, introducing discourse on sexual violence and the gender-based struggles endured by Egypt’s women on a daily basis.

In a society where staying silent enables abusers and aggressors, it is more vital than ever that women have an opportunity to spread awareness and fight for justice. With the ever-growing presence of social media, Egyptian youth are amid an online revolution that doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.