Carrying a bouquet of red roses and flanked by uniformed army officers, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi stood over the hospital bed of a woman who was brutally assaulted during a celebration of his inauguration last week in Tahrir Square. Dressed in a trim grey suit, the former general softly tried to comfort her. "I have come to tell you and every Egyptian woman that I am sorry," he said. "I apologize to all of you."
His visit came as outrage spread over the attack, part of which was captured in a shaky video posted on YouTube. It showed a crowd of men surrounding the woman – she is bloodied, bruised and stripped naked – as a police officer struggles to get her into an ambulance. That video, the woman told the President, is something her daughter watches in horror every day. "We as a state," he responded, "will not let this happen again."
Mr. el-Sissi's appearance – carefully scripted and broadcast on Egyptian television on Wednesday – was the first time a high-level Egyptian leader even acknowledged what women here know only too well: that sexual assault and harassment are a constant threat, and the state has done little or nothing to punish men who perpetrate these acts.
Many activists doubt his show of concern or even his promise will have much practical impact. But even talking about rape publicly is a change, and may be evidence that the government, as well as religious and other institutions, might feel new pressure.
Sexual violence in public spaces has spiked in the three years since a popular uprising forced out Hosni Mubarak and ushered in a period of near-constant instability. The Cairo-based institute Nazra for Feminist Studies has documented more than 500 cases of mob sexual assault since February, 2011, and said that during Mr. el-Sissi's inaugural celebrations at least nine sexual assaults took place in Tahrir Square.
Sexual harassment is also rampant here. A United Nations women's agency study found that 99 per cent of Egyptian women surveyed said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment, from verbal abuse to touching. Last month, the interim government added a definition of sexual harassment to the penal code, and decreed tougher sentences. But activists say the change is nowhere near enough.
"It's good that people are finally reacting to what is happening," said Amal Elmohandes, director of the women human rights defenders program at Nazra. "Before, they would say we're either exaggerating or making it up. However, this has been happening for more than three years, and a comprehensive approach needs to be adopted."
Before the uprisings in January, 2011, which brought unprecedented demonstrations and often saw the disappearance of police from the streets, women were assaulted in public – in crowds at soccer games and concerts, for example. But incidents were rarely noted in the media and often not reported to the police.
Malak Ahmed, a 27-year-old employee of the Ministry of Health, said that growing up she was grabbed and touched as she rode Cairo's minibuses from the age of 10 onward. "In elementary and high school was when I was harassed the most because I couldn't defend myself," she said, as she stood in the women's car of the Cairo subway with her year-and-a-half-old daughter, Sara, sleeping on her shoulder. "When my daughter gets older I won't let her take public transportation to school like I did. I will put her on the school bus."
The police and security apparatus has been part of the problem; human rights groups have reported numerous cases of women being assaulted and harassed by the law enforcement officers. Female protesters have also been subjected to so-called virginity tests after being detained – a practice defended by Mr. el-Sissi when he was head of military intelligence.
What is needed is a "huge reform of the police," said Helen Rizzo, a sociologist at the American University in Cairo. "The people who are in charge of implementing the law don't take it seriously."
Since the 2011 uprisings, a group called Operation Anti Sexual Harassment, has sent volunteers in teams to gathering places to talk to men about the issue and extract women who came under attack. But activists of all stripes have been discouraged in the past year. So the group did not send anyone to Tahrir Square for the inauguration celebrations, according to long-time member Ahmed Ezz, out of fear that its members might be arrested and because the police were back in the square.
For now, the President has become the first Egyptian leader to put himself on record as recognizing there is a problem. He has ordered that the police officer who pulled the woman from her attackers in the square receive a commendation. He also ordered his Interior Minister to "take all necessary measures to combat sexual harassment" and said a committee will "identify the underlying causes" and "delineate a national strategy."
And, for the first time in three years of mob sexual assaults, police arrested seven men suspected in the attack.