Egyptian authorities have ordered the release of four men accused in the 2014 drugging and rape of a 18-year-old at a hotel after-party in Cairo—and delivered a major blow to a rising #MeToo movement inside the country and across the Middle East.
On Tuesday, the Public Prosecutor’s Office issued a statement that cited insufficient evidence for a criminal trial over what’s become known as the Fairmont Incident, named after the Nile-front property where the attack is believed to have taken place. The investigation spanned nearly nine months, three continents, and dozens of interviews—all catalyzed by a social media campaign launched in July 2020 and aimed at naming and shaming sexual predators in Egypt.
The men accused in the Fairmont case come from wealthy, connected families and had the financial means to skip town after the charges were filed against them. One suspect was released on bail in March and two remain at large. But what culminated in the extraditions and arrests of the remaining men opened a snake pit of distracting rumors and death threats made against activists and the survivor, as well as the abuse and arbitrary pretrial detention of witnesses to the attack. Human Rights Watch characterized the abuse of the men’s accuser and her confidantes as a “second assault,” criticizing Egyptian authorities for “failing to properly investigate” the attack. The Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy called it a “flawed investigation.”
People shared expressions of shock, and an outpouring of support for the young woman on social media, whose personal safety is still contingent on her anonymity. “We failed her and we failed all the survivors,” one post said.
“You are the bravest person ever,” another person posted. “Your suffering wasn’t in vain.… I believe you.” Egyptian actor Abbas Aboelhassan wrote, “You changed an entire society, and you stained these criminals for life.” Actress Basma Hassan posted in Arabic, “Your bravery inspired others to speak up. This is not the end of the story.”
And just like the story began, the unofficial “Most Wanted” list that broadcast the names and faces of the alleged rapists across social media last summer is making the rounds again.
From the outside, the Fairmont case offered an opportunity for Egypt to confront the misogyny, classism, and corruption that’s become central to the lived experience of nearly all women who live there—and for women to challenge a culture that for decades has enabled men and boys to cat-call, assault, and abuse them with few, if any, consequences.
But what seems to have hurt the Fairmont survivor’s case the most is the collective silence that kept the incident buried in the first place. A video of the attack allegedly recorded by the men was circulated among friends, but none were willing to come forward—even after pleas by authorities—which suggests either extreme loyalty or fear of implied complicity, or both. They said they weren’t able to identify the accuser in the grainy screenshots of the video that were anonymously sent to them.
In its purity-centric society, Egypt has long prioritized morality over malice. Had the woman claimed she’d been violated seven years ago, she would have been publicly shamed at the very least and could face charges, fines, and jail time for violating indecency laws.
Sabah Khodir, an activist who’s been one of this feminist movement’s fiercest organizers, called the decision to close the case “the greatest betrayal.” “They’ve taken away a lot of hope from a lot of people,” Khodir says. “We were so badly traumatized and bullied and terrorized through this process. I think it would be hard to convince a girl to feel safe going forward right now.”
But not all is lost. What the Fairmont case did do was inspire the creation of laws that protect the identities of survivors and witnesses of sexual assault in Egypt. It captured the attention of politicians, celebrities, media personalities, and religious leaders. It mobilized thousands across the Middle East to dispel tradition in favor of truth. “Corruption is way more powerful than anything else in the country. The government has to prove itself,” Khodir says. “Things will continue to change, and the best they can do is adapt to it.”