Egypt's president makes sexual harassment a crime

The decree amends the country's current laws, which did not criminalise sexual harassment and only vaguely referred to such offences as indecent assault. (AFP)

The decree amends the country's current laws, which did not criminalise sexual harassment and only vaguely referred to such offences as indecent assault. (AFP)

Egypt’s outgoing president on Thursday decreed sexual harassment a crime punishable by up to five years in prison, a much-anticipated move toward combating the abuse deeply rooted in the country.

The decree was among several last-minute decisions by President Adly Mansour who is to hand over power on Sunday to president-elect, Egypt’s former military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

The decree amends the country’s current laws, which did not criminalise sexual harassment and only vaguely referred to such offences as indecent assault. In Egypt, violence against women in public space has grown over the past three years of turmoil since the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The decree says harassers face between six months to five years in prison, with harsher sentences reserved for offenders holding a position of power over their victims, like being a woman’s superior at work or being armed with a weapon. The decree also defines a sexual harasser as a person seeking to achieve “an interest of a sexual nature”, according to presidential spokesperson Ehab Badawi. Offenders would be prosecuted whether they commit harassment in public or in private, and repeat offenders would see their sentences doubled, Badawi said.

Along with the maximum five-year sentence, offenders would be fined up to 5 000 Egyptian pounds, or about $714, with the maximum fine reserved for harassers who use a weapon or pressure.

The decree acts as an amendment to existing laws, which may disappoint some women’s rights activists who have demanded completely new legislation on the issue.

Sexual harrassment
Last year, a joint report by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, Egypt’s Demographic Centre and the National Planning Institute found that more than 99% of hundreds of women surveyed in seven of the country’s 27 provinces reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, ranging from minor harassment to rape.

The breakdown in the police force in the wake of the 2011 uprising that ousted Mubarak left the streets in Egypt even more unsafe for women. Over the past three years, including under the year-long rule of Mubarak’s successor, Islamist President Mohammed Mursi, there have also been multiple mass sexual assaults on women during political protests.

Initiatives to counter harassment also multiplied. Volunteer groups started escorting women, especially during political gatherings. Activists offered self-defence classes for women and social networking sites launched “name and shame” campaigns.

However, many say harassment will continue as long as Egypt’s conservative Muslim society discriminates against women, accusing them of dressing immodestly and mixing with men in public and thus provoking harassment.

Mansour on Thursday also imposed a temporary tax, effective over the next three years, on those whose income exceeds $142 857.

The measure, meant to help with the budget deficit, gave the high-income citizens the option to divert the funds that would be taxed to infrastructure projects. In another development, an appeals court in Beni Suef province south of Cairo on Thursday upheld a five-year sentence for an author convicted on charges of contempt of religion, a court official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to talk to media.

The court confirmed the original sentence for Karam Saber, who was tried and sentenced in absentia last year over his 2010 novel Where is God. After the initial sentencing, Saber turned himself in and received the same sentence in a retrial, in accordance with Egyptian law. He then appealed and was free on bail pending Thursday’s decision.

Amnesty International had called for Saber’s immediate release, saying he is punished for “exercising his right to freedom of expression”. – Sapa-AP



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