Egyptian women are particularly vulnerable to violence in the public space, with 99,3% of women and girls reporting some form of sexual harassment and assault in their lifetime. Upon becoming president in 2014, El-Sisi visited a victim of sexual assault on Tahrir Square in what became a first: an Egyptian president explicitly committing to fighting gender-based violence. For the first time in the country’s history, in June 2014, Egypt approved a new law criminalising sexual harassment. As part of El-Sisi’s ‘Year of Egyptian Women’, the Egyptian parliament approved a draft bill pushing for tougher penalties on sexual harassment in January 2017. In August 2018, even al-Azhar, Egypt’s top Muslim authority, denounced the problem.
While Egyptian women have indeed gained new rights under El-Sisi – at least on paper – they also had to give up their independent voice and their freedom of association and expression in return. They have been lumped together under the common label of ‘Egyptian women’ who purportedly all support the ‘feminist’ president. Those defying this image by speaking out against the government’s authoritarian feminism are being silenced. Women’s rights defenders who link gender justice to broader demands for freedom and social justice are particularly prone to the wrath of the regime.
On paper, the EU not only seeks to ‘vigorously promote’ women’s rights in external relations but also commits to supporting female human rights defenders globally. Support for human rights defenders, with a specific focus on female human rights defenders, also underpins EU external relations policy. On 21 September, EU High Representative Mogherini stressed the need to support female human rights activists during the first women-only foreign ministers conference, held in Montréal.
Unfortunately, rhetorical commitments too often contrast with realities and EU actions on the ground. During the informal Salzburg summit of heads of government on 19-20 September, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council, praised Egypt for stopping people from leaving its coast headed to Europe and announced increased support for the country. While still in its early phase of thrashing out the details, Donald Tusk already confirmed that an EU-Arab League summit would be held in Cairo in February, and a €60 million EU-Egypt agreement to curb irregular migration has recently been signed.
In September, the plight of one Egyptian woman raised eyebrows in Europe and elsewhere. Amal Fathy, an actor and a former activist, who made a video alleging sexual harassment has been given two years in prison and a fine on charges of “spreading false news”. This Egyptian woman was prosecuted and jailed only because she uploaded a video to her Facebook account in May detailing how she was sexually harassed during a visit to her bank and criticising the government’s failure to protect women.
Hence, increased financial support for Egypt coming from the European Union silences female human rights defenders like Fathy, as it further legitimises and normalises the brutal authoritarian nature of El-Sisi’s regime. Strongmen such as El-Sisi are glad to accept the EU’s migration money in return for immunity from external criticism and sanctions. Thus far, the EU institutions have not spoken out about the recent conviction of Amal Fathy and have failed to denounce El-Sisi’s implausible state feminism.
But if the EU and its member states wish to be more genuine about their women’s rights agenda than President El-Sisi, further cooperation and budgetary support for Egypt needs to take full account of the 2017-20 ENP partnership priorities, which are predicated on a ‘shared commitment to democracy, the rule of law and the respect of human rights’. If nothing else, Fathy’s case clearly shows that women’s rights can never flourish without democracy and pluralism.
‚What Egypt’s El-Sisi and the EU Have in Common When it Comes to Women’s Rights‘ – Commentary by Loes Debuysere – Centre for European Policy Studies / CEPS.