One night in February 2014, a group of young, wealthy, Egyptian men attended what could be described as a fancy rave in Cairo. DJs spun house music, strobe lights illuminated the faces of well-dressed attendees, tables and bottles were sold at exorbitant premiums. It was the kind of party that only A-listers could attend.
There, the men allegedly spiked an 18-year-old girl’s drink with gamma hydroxybutyrate, or GHB, the sedative commonly known as the date-rape drug. At an after-party, they took turns on her limp body. And they filmed themselves doing it.
The video was a trophy these men shared with their friends on WhatsApp in what came to be known as “The Fairmont Incident,” a reference to the luxury Nile-front hotel where it’s believed to have taken place. One of the suspects is the son of a famous soccer player turned coach. Another’s family owns a chain of pharmacies all over the country. Most of these men share last names with some of Egypt’s biggest entrepreneurs. A couple of them went on to get married and start families.
Many other people would be shown the video over the years, but nobody reported its existence — an indication that these men were rich and powerful enough to threaten or pay people to stay quiet.
On August 24, Egypt’s attorney general issued arrest warrants for six men implicated in the attack and two others who participated with some of the men in separate attacks. Two days later, authorities announced that the suspects had already fled the country and that they were coordinating with Interpol. Last Thursday, they arrested one of them in Egypt. On Friday, one suspect turned himself in. On Saturday, three others were arrested in Lebanon. For now, they’re charged only with spreading rumors.
While Egyptian authorities are investigating the allegations, there are reports that they’ve also detained a number of key witnesses in the alleged gang rape. Sources say the National Council for Women, which has encouraged sexual assault survivors to speak up and had ensured their protection, turned the witnesses over to the government. They were reportedly being questioned without access to their families or attorneys.
Over the last two months, there’s been a seismic shift in the way Egyptians talk about sex, namely how it’s weaponized against women. In the past, incidents of sexual violence in Egypt would go unreported; the victims who did come forward were typically blamed or encouraged to let it go because of the humiliation its disclosure would cause the accused’s family or their own. But that started to shift abruptly this summer.
In late June, an anonymous Instagram account called @assaultpolice began collecting testimonies about and screenshots of conversations with a 22-year-old college student named Ahmed Bassam Zaki. Those chats swiftly landed him in jail, charged with harassing, blackmailing, and sexually assaulting a number of women, one of which was a minor at the time. At the same time, the Assault Police account was receiving information about the alleged Fairmont rapists, so it encouraged anybody who had the video to get in touch.
In both the Zaki and Fairmont cases, the accused come from rich and well-connected families, the kind that in Egypt are perceived as untouchable. While Egypt’s constitution stipulates that all citizens are equal under the law, a culture of bribery and nepotism prevails. Life is ruled by “wasta,” the Arabic word for “connections.” Despite a handful of anti-corruption laws, well-heeled elites are allowed to act with impunity, often without legal consequences.
“Classism is the master category in which Egyptian society is structured, just like racism is the master character category for the United States.”
“Classism is the master category in which Egyptian society is structured, just like racism is the master character category for the United States,” said Sahar Aziz, professor of law and Middle East legal studies scholar at Rutgers University.
In Egypt’s conservative Muslim-majority society, most families find it more important to protect their reputation than air their dirty laundry, even if it involves their daughter’s abuse or their son’s wrongdoing. Honor is paramount. Families either agree to forgive and forget or settle these situations behind closed doors. But the social media movement triggered by these allegations is challenging this culture and promising a future where sexual assault survivors can pursue justice.
Shady Noor, a graduate student who’s become the movement’s most outspoken male ally, said there was no shortage of people who wanted to report the Fairmont incident to authorities. “The most you could do back then is not speak to them and to tell people to stay away from them,” he said. “But to take legal action, that was an impossible task.”
The idea of an active feminist movement comes as a surprise to many in Egypt, which over the years has become notorious for its dismal human rights record.
“There is a palpable sense of repression in Egypt insofar as opposing or criticizing the government,” said Aziz. “And yet we're seeing these young women who are willing to engage in what is effectively … the very type of activism that triggered the Arab Spring and the very same type of activism that the Sisi regime is currently trying to quash when it's focused on political issues.”
The @assaultpolice account was abruptly deactivated after hackers sent the administrator death threats along with her home address. One of her last posts claimed the account was “off the Fairmont case.” Then, she went underground.
Women and men began to flood Twitter and Instagram with the alleged Fairmont assailants’ names and faces. People created hashtags and demanded that the Egyptian Public Prosecution Office respond as they did with Zaki and arrest the assailants. But nothing happened. State media didn’t rush to report or comment on the allegations.
Beyond this woman’s trauma, there was still the burden of proof. The victim believed she was drugged, but she has no recollection of the events. The small army of trusted activists had reason to believe that the video was out there. But without it, rumblings of an alleged crime, no matter how heinous, would never stand up in court. Someone finally caved and shared screenshots of the Fairmont video with one of the Instagram accounts pleading for its handover.
One of the photos is of the victim’s backside, where some of the men had drawn penises and signed their initials. The second shows her draped across the back of a sofa, with shampoo bottles balanced on her body as though she were a table. Semen trickled down her spine.
While the victim refused to look at the photos, their sheer existence compelled her to officially report her attack. Then, a different video surfaced showing a couple of the Fairmont guys gang-raping a different girl, who shockingly had no knowledge that it had even happened. They both came forward. On August 5, the Public Prosecution Office pledged to investigate. Now, the activists’ goal was to keep these women safe. They shuffled them between safe houses in different cars, until the National Council for Women took the reins.
Meanwhile, a number of suspicious accounts emerged, promising to divulge the “truth” about the Fairmont Incident and the people behind the campaign against the suspects. It became a war of words between a growing movement and a shadowy group of Internet trolls. And it didn’t stop there. A man who’d accompanied the Fairmont victim as a witness, during a visit with her lawyer, recorded the meeting and sent it to the suspects. The victim informed activists that she was being blackmailed with personal information and photos that would upset most Muslim parents. The Assault Police account came back online with a message: “We are not afraid.”
The men’s scheme was identical to Zaki’s; that is, to bully and threaten women and hang “honor” over their heads. But activists conceived a defense strategy; they would take to their accounts to claim that they were the Fairmont victim, so that even if her name was revealed, it would get lost in a sea of others.
The response was remarkable: Hundreds of women and men posted to Twitter and Instagram with messages of solidarity, “I am her.” “It is a new Egypt,” Noor said. “The power of this movement is one that nobody can ever undo. It's irreversible.”
Now the government appears to be reacting to forces outside its control: Social media publicizes assaults, the media covers it, and they’re forced to at least appear to take it seriously. “They are a society deciding as a collective that this type of behavior is not acceptable to the extent that it should be criminalized, prosecuted, enforced,” Aziz said.
The government’s cooperation is vital to the Fairmont suspects’ successful prosecution, but a number of activists and analysts worry corruption could stall or compromise the case. Bad publicity could backfire and the government could decide to attempt to make it all go away, rather than have an embarrassing trial.
“If you take them down, you take some of the most powerful or most well-connected people in Egypt down,” Noor said.