CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's new president on Tuesday ordered his interior minister to do whatever it takes to combat sexual harassment, weighing in on one of the nation's most troubling social ills after a string of sexual assaults marred weekend celebrations marking his inauguration.
A presidential spokesman said Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi also called for the decisive implementation of a new law that punishes convicted harassers with up to five years in prison. Describing sexual harassment as a phenomena "alien" to Egypt, he quoted el-Sissi as also calling for the restoration of the "real and moral" values of Egypt's streets.
A string of sexual assaults on women during Sunday's celebrations, including a mass attack on a mother and her teenage daughter in Cairo's famed Tahrir square, stained the occasion and sparked outrage.
The attacks were a grim reminder of one of Egyptian society's darkest sides and coincided with el-Sissi starring in a series of carefully choreographed ceremonies held at two of the capital's most opulent presidential palaces and attended by hundreds of local and foreign dignitaries.
The spokesman, Ehab Badawi, said el-Sissi also instructed Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim to honor a policeman who came to the teenager's rescue.
The nation's chief prosecutor, Hesham Barakat, meanwhile ordered three men arrested in connection with Sunday's assault on the mother and daughter immediately put on trial, according to a statement from his office. It said the three have been charged with sexual assault with the use of force and attempted rape.
The statement gave graphic details of the attack.
The attackers, it said, first formed a circle around the two, stripped off the mother of her clothes and assaulted her. Later, the mother fell on a bowl of hot water used by a tea maker at the square, sustaining burns on 25 percent of her body. It said the attackers later turned their attention to the daughter but could not do the same to her because police intervened. The statement did not say whether the daughter was also stripped off her clothes and assaulted.
Security officials on Monday identified as the teenage daughter a naked female in a video posted on social media networks with parts of her body bloodied, surrounded by a mob of men as a policeman struggled to extract her from the crowd. The Interior Ministry, in charge of police, identified seven suspects it said were arrested in connection with a series of sexual harassment incidents on Sunday. It said their ages ranged between 15 and 49.
Authorities investigating reports of sexual assaults were examining a dozen videos from security cameras or from bystanders who filmed the incidents on their mobile phones, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Last week, authorities issued a decree declaring sexual harassment a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. The decree amended Egypt's current laws on abuse, which did not criminalize sexual harassment and only vaguely referred to such offenses as "indecent assault."
Sexual harassment has been one of Egypt's enduring social ills, embedded in the country's patriarchal conservative culture, where women are generally seen as inferior to men. Movies often portray women as sex objects, leaving them vulnerable to men who feel empowered by the absence of a strong legal deterrent.
Sexual assaults have increased dramatically in ferocity and in number in the three years since the ouster of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, with Tahrir square, birthplace of the 2011 uprising, the site of multiple sexual attacks on women amid the large crowds.
On Monday, 29 women's rights groups released a joint statement accusing the government of failing do enough to address the spiraling outbreak of mob attacks on women. They said they had documented more than 250 cases of "mass sexual rape and mass sexual assaults" from November 2012 to January 2014.
"Combatting that phenomena requires a comprehensive national strategy," they said in the statement.
Stoking the uproar over the latest sexual harassment incidents were comments by a TV anchorwoman during a live report from a correspondent covering the Tahrir celebrations. When the correspondent for al-Nahar TV told the anchorwoman there had been several cases of sexual harassment, she laughed and said it's "because they are happy."
The anchorwoman, Maha Bahnassy, denied Monday that her comment was in response to the harassment incidents.
"I was, along with my guests, commenting on people's joy, not the harassment," she said on her Facebook page.