Egyptian security forces are routinely using sexual harassment and abuse against political prisoners and detainees, according to a report released today by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
The report compiles previously published interviews of detainees, firsthand accounts by detainees who reported abuse to humanitarian organizations in Egypt, and testimony from human rights workers in the country to paint a picture of widespread, systemic sexual violence against prisoners in the country, including women, men, and children. The report does not identify any of the alleged victims by name; the organization said it is very dangerous for individuals in Egypt to use their names to currently speak about events in the country.
"Two soldiers started to sexually assault me. There was one who was ashamed and who asked them to stop," a woman identified as N., a student at al-Azhar University in Cairo, told the news site Yanair and al-Jazeera, according to the report. "They told him to keep quiet. The officer from the start got into the van and said to me, 'Come here I'm going to show you if I'm a man.' He sexually assaulted me, the soldiers laughed, and then he raped me completely,"
Two male students told the researchers that when they were arrested for protesting, an Egyptian soldier inserted his finger into one of their anuses, while the other received shock treatment to his genitals. The report also said that "virginity tests" are now standard practice for female detainees.
The report charges that the violence is being done with the knowledge and consent of the country's police, security, and military forces, as well as the Ministry of the Interior in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government, and is now so widespread in the country that sexual violence is occurring at checkpoints, in Cairo's Metro system, and at universities and courts.
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Egyptian scholars in the United States said the report's findings are not entirely surprising; charges of sexual harassment and violence among police have been rampant for years. But the charged political atmosphere in Egypt that has led to a spike in the number of political prisoners and detainees has made the practices much more widespread, they said.
"Sexual harassment has been a fact in Egypt for a very long time and I'm sure there always was a certain amount of sexual assault, but as the report indicates it really increased after the 2011 uprising," said Michelle Dunne, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace.
"There are very large numbers of essentially political prisoners, mostly people who've been picked up at demonstrations, as well as members of the Muslim brotherhood being systematically rounded up," she said.
The number of political prisoners is estimated to be around 40,000, Dunne said, and while it would be difficult to vet and verify all of the claims of abuse, she said it is very common to hear personal stories of abuse from detainees, including sexual and physical abuse, beatings, and torture.
"All of of this involves efforts to intimidate or humiliate or psychologically break down detainees," she said.
Charges of police brutality in Egypt actually helped spur the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak, Eric Trager of the Washington Institute told VICE News. The protests that eventually led to Mubarak's ouster began on national police day in the country in 2011, he said.
"It wasn't initially about toppling Mubarak but about reforming the police because of how abusive they've always been," he said.
Now, under Sisi, the political climate is so fraught between the military leadership in charge of the country and the ousted Muslim Brotherhood party that officials are justifying human rights abuses as necessary to keep the country from descending into chaos, according to Trager and Marina Ottaway, senior scholar at the Middle East Program of the Wilson Center.
"The overthrow of Mohammad Morsi put the government in a kill-or-be-killed struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood," Trager said. "The extensiveness of the arrest campaign and the brute force now used to put down opposition protests is unprecedented, and is a consequence of that kill or be killed struggle."
"What you have now is a sense by security forces that anything goes in name of the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood and everything, anything goes," Ottoway said. "It's the same as with the judiciary. There is almost a concept that there is a greater good that has to be pursued and what happens now doesn't matter."
Ottoway said that the "greater good" is, for the current leadership, about getting rid of political opposition and returning the country to stability, thus using sexual violence against political protesters is a way to try demoralize the demonstrators and put an end to the demonstrations. The FIDH said that it has no evidence the tactics stem from direct orders given by senior officials, but that the pattern of sexual violence inflicted on so many protesters "indicate[s] that such violence forms part of a cynical political strategy."
The group asserts that the strategy has worked; protests have been limited by organizers due to the risk for participants.
"This tactic has already had a significant impact, with a growing number of protest movements and even meetings now organised online to avoid arrests and assaults," the report said.
The report also detailed the government's crackdown on gay and lesbian Egyptians, which some experts described as part of a public relations strategy by the government to win favor with the conservative population and be seen as a moral authority. Egyptian police have conducted highly-publicized busts of gay bars and alleged bathhouses in recent years, and detainees cited in the FIDH report said that they too were subjected to sexual harassment and violence after their arrests.
The US-based experts told VICE News that they did not think much corrective action could be expected after the release of the FIDH report. Ottoway said there might be "symbolic actions" taken, such as Sisi condemning the practices publicly.
"It's possible this report might lead the government to issue some statement, but I'm pretty sure there's not going to be any action following," she said. "I think what [officials] would probably say is that the report is not accurate and that these are isolated cases."
"There are so many human rights abuses [in Egypt] that it takes something stronger than a report, it takes data, numbers, photo and video evidence, and personal testimonies by people willing to have their names used, that's what it takes to do something," Dunne said.
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen