On a Friday morning in May 2018, about an hour before dawn, the Egyptian police stormed into the house of Amal Fathy,34, and her husband Mohamed Lotfy in Cairo. The full family, including their three-year old son, were taken to the police station. Hours later, Lotfy and the boy were released, but Fathy remained in detention.
It was a video Fathy posted on Facebook a few days before the arrest that got her in trouble. In the video, she was telling her own story of sexual harassment: how she was harrassed by the security personnel of her bank. She also criticised the Egyptian government for failing to protect women against sexual harassment. She also criticised more generally the crackdown on political opposition in Egypt and the socioeconomic conditions inthe country. Her video was shared widely – it had touched a nerve.
Local media shamed Fathy over the video, with for instance infamous tabloid Al-Youm Al-Sabaa (Youm7) showing pictures of Fathy smoking and wearing what is considered by Egyptian standards a quite revealing evening dress. The notoriously pro-state paper accused her of being a member of the 6 April Youth Movement, a banned political group that was active during and after the country’s 25 January Revolution in 2011. In the words of Youm7, her video would amount to an “insult” and attack against the Egyptian state.. The particular fact that the video showed a woman (and not a man) using bad language was painted as a disgrace.
Almost five months later, on 29 September, a Cairo misdemeanour court sentenced Fathy to two years in prison over “spreading false news with the intention to harm the state, and possession of indecent material”. She also stands accused by state security prosecution, in a second case over charges related to belonging to a terrorist organisation.
Fathy previously worked in the film industry, as an actress: she had small roles in soap operas and films, and has also worked as executive film director. In her 20s, she was a fashion model as well. “She was not involved at all in politics,” her husband Mohamed Lotfy told Fanack.
With the outbreak of the 2011 protests, Fathy “became interested in public affairs”, Lotfy said. “Like so many young people.” During this period, she became acquainted with members of the 6 April Youth Movement, one of the front groups of the revolution, but she has never been a member herself, he stressed.
While international media describe her as a defender of women’s rights and human rights, she is not working for one of the country’s activist groups covering these issues, or affiliated with any political group, Lotfy said. She does speak out against what she considers as injustices on social media, for instance against the arbitrary detention of activists in Egypt.
Lotfy believes that Fathy’s arrest is partly related to his own work as head of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom (ECRF), a human rights group in Egypt that has been frequently targeted by the authorities. “It’s a reprisal against the ECRF”, he said.
Two lawyers of the ECFR currently act as attorney for the family of the Italian student Giulio Regeni, who was murdered in 2016 in Egypt in a highly sensitive case that resulted in strained relations between Egypt and Italy for a few years. Investigations have not led to tangible results, but his murder bears the hall-marks of the security forces.
State security officers have questioned Fathy in prison over the work of her husband and especially his connection to the Regeni case, Lotfy said. The officers wanted her to admit it was actually Lotfy’s idea to post the video, he added.
A number of Egyptian NGOs have said in a joint statement that Lotfy’s human rights work “likely provides the primary impetus behind the extreme, unjust prosecution of Amal Fathy”.
Fathy was one of the six critics arrested in May this year. All of them stand accused of spreading false news and belonging to a terrorist group.
The arrest and sentencing of Fathy has been widely condemned by international rights advocates, with Amnesty International saying Fathy is “facing a disgraceful sentence simply for her courage to speak out against sexual harassment”. A group of UN human rights experts has condemned the ‘systematic targeting’ of human rights defenders in Egypt. The Wall Street Journal sees the sentencing of Fathy as part of a larger crackdown on women speaking out against sexual harassment in Egypt.
Amal Fathy is not the only Egyptian woman who has been criticized for posting about sexual harassment on social media. Last August, the Egyptian Menna Gobran posted a video in which she is harassed on the streets by a man who asks her to have coffee with him. The video sparked a debate on whether the man’s actions amounted to harassment or the girl was overreacting. While this example may be considered a grey area, the fact is that the man became a sort of cult figure on social media. The girl, on the other hand, felt forced to remove her social media account due to harassment, lost her job, and was shamed online for being “immoral”, with users sharing private pictures of her in relatively revealing clothes.
Last June, Mona el-Mazbouh, a Lebanese woman on holiday in Egypt, was arrested after she posted a video lashing out against sexual harassment and Egypt in general. She was sentenced to eight years over spreading rumours that could undermine society, but released after the verdict was amended in September.
“It’s not systematic targeting of women speaking out against harassment, it’s part of a broader crackdown on those who publicly criticise the state of affairs in Egypt,” a local journalist told Fanack. The narrative is that “everything is good”, and endemic sexual harassment does not fit in that picture, she said. “You are not supposed to address [societal] problems in public.”
Explaining why Fathy posted the video, Lofty said she has had several bad experiences of sexual harassment in the past, which had made her “anxious, depressed and traumatised’. She tends to react strongly to anything that reminds her of those past experiences, and the video was such an outburst of anger, he said. “I didn’t believe the video would get her into jail, but that was wishful thinking.”
“The space for women to speak out against sexual harassment is narrowing,” the local journalist told Fanack. “So women go to social media to express their frustration. Both the videos of Amal and of the Lebanese woman were outbursts of anger, they were not meant for the public.”
Fathy appealed the sentence; the case is due on 25 November. Lofty said they paid the 20.000 Egyptian pounds bail and is hopeful she will be released before that hearing. “Her psychological state of mind is deteriorating, and she suffers from panic attacks in prison,” he said. But even then, Fathy could still be kept in pre-trial detention in the other state security case.