Where do survivors of sexual violence turn? The case of Ahmed Bassam Zaki

Dozens of accusations of sexual assault, harassment, and blackmail by a 21-year-old university student that first came to light on social media have ignited a firestorm in Egypt over the past week. The case of Ahmed Bassam Zaki, who is currently in police custody, made headline news and reverberated across the country, sparking a wider conversation about sexual violence in Egypt and prompting the government to react with proposed changes to legislation. 

The stories of Zaki’s survivors were brought to the public’s attention by intermediaries, who gathered and eventually published them on an Instagram account called assaultpolice last Wednesday, July 1. The complaints, of which there are now over 150, take place over a period of five years, according to the account. 

Sabah Khodir, one of the organizers of the campaign, says in a video that she coordinated with the National Council for Women so that victims would agree to file reports after the account published their complaints. Khodir, who describes herself as an Egyptian writer who lives between Egypt and Washington DC, says she understands that filing a complaint is terrifying, but that if they didn’t the defendant could go free and commit similar crimes against other women. Mada Masr was unable to reach Khodir for an interview. 

The NCW filed a complaint with the public prosecutors’ office on Saturday, asking it to investigate, and urged victims to come forward to file their own complaints, assuring them that their identities will be protected, and that technical and legal support would be provided. Later that day, the public prosecutor’s office issued a statement saying it had received a complaint by a woman saying he had threatened her for sex, and police arrested Zaki on Saturday night. On Monday, an arraignment judge ordered him detained in remand for 15 days pending investigation on charges of “attempted nonconsensual sexual intercourse with two girls, indecent violation using force and threats against them and another girl under the age of 18, threats to expose and attribute to them and other girls matters impugning their honor coupled with a demand for sex and the continuation of their relationship with him, incitement to moral depravity using gestures and words, willful harassment of them using telecommunication means and the infringement thereby of the family principles and values of Egyptian society, violation of their private lives, the sending of multiple electronic messages to them without their consent, and the use of private internet accounts to commit these crimes,” according to a statement from the Public Prosecution. 

Five women, and one underage girl, had filed official reports with the prosecution against the defendant in connection with incidents that took place from 2016 through this year. According to the prosecution, Zaki admitted that he knew them and had threatened them, but he denied responsibility for other sexual assaults alleged against him on social media in recent days. 

The testimonies posted by the assaultpolice account included voice recordings of Zaki threatening to expose two victims, send one of them to jail, and kill the boyfriend of another. They include the account of a male victim who says Zaki raped him at knifepoint. Another victim, who identified herself as Tunisian but chose not to share her name, says Zaki raped her in an empty gym on his compound, where she had gone to meet him. A security guard had seen them, but Zaki gave him money to leave them alone. On her way to her car immediately after the attack, “I saw the security guard that had found us in the gym, and he told me, ‘Ahmed Bey says to get out of here. Go on, you daughter of a whore, a whore like all the rest of your kind — Tunisia doesn’t produce anything but whores.’ I left Egypt for a year after that. I left everything because of him — my professional life, my job at the radio, the money, everything. I went to work in Beirut. In January I returned to Egypt, after two years of torment in hospitals.”

The graphic and numerous allegations against Zaki have made headlines and sparked a wider, ongoing conversation around sexual violence in the country. Hundreds of women and some men have come forward with testimonies of other incidents of abuse and harassment; celebrities have spoken out in solidarity. The process has underscored the problems with pursuing legal action in cases of sexual violence, spotlighting survivors’ sense of vulnerability and their fear of defamation or retribution. On Tuesday, the National Council for Women announced that it had received a staggering 400 complaints of sexual harassment, assault or blackmail in a span of just five days, from July 1 to July 5.

Before reaching prosecutors, complaints against Zaki had been made to the administrations of at least two of the universities he had attended. According to assaultpolice, his crimes took place while he was enrolled in the American International School (2015–2016), the American University in Cairo (2016–2018), and most recently the EU Business School in Barcelona, Spain (2018), until his expulsion on July 3. 

In a post, the account’s admin explained that she learned of the accusations against Zaki from a student at the American University of Cairo, who had posted on the university’s professor evaluation platform to say that Zaki had harassed her and a friend. More than 50 complaints followed, but Zaki, after threatening suicide because of them, transferred to a university in Spain and no investigation was initiated. 

After the story made headlines, AUC released a statement on July 2 neither affirming nor denying it had received complaints of sexual assault against Zaki. “Ahmed Bassam Zaki is not a current student at The American University in Cairo. He left the University in 2018. AUC has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and is committed to upholding a safe environment for all members of the community,” the statement said. The AUC Students Rights Coalition issued a statement on July 4 confirming that the complaint was posted and later removed from the university’s Rate AUC Professors platform. The statement called on students to support the victims, speak about what had happened to them and send their stories to assaultpolice. 

According to a statement released by the EU Business School in Barcelona, of which Mada Masr obtained a copy from Communications Director Claire Basterfield, Zaki was enrolled at the university as an online student, but he had spent three weeks on the Barcelona campus in February. Upon learning of the multiple allegations against him shared by assaultpolice, and then receiving formal complaints from its students of online harassment from Zaki, the university immediately suspended him, and then expelled him two days later. After an anonymous post regarding an alleged assault by Zaki on campus was found to be false and retracted by the assaultpolice account, the university says it asked Spanish authorities to run a full inquiry in order to protect the community. 

Meanwhile, in Cairo, feminist civic groups like the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights and the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance got involved as well. On her Facebook account, lawyer Nehad Abo El Komsan, the head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, said “Many girls reached out to me to file complaints against the rapist. When I explain the procedures, they ask for details about the environment in which questioning will be conducted and how they will be protected, and when they learn about the reality, they reconsider. A safe environment, privacy and protection are everyone’s primary demands. The young man’s arrest and the realization of justice are very important and in the collective interest for these reasons: to restore the girls’ right and their confidence in themselves, people, and the whole country; to realize security in society; and to secure confidence in the justice system. The reluctance to file a report is a worrying indication of the level of faith in the justice system and protection.” 

Lawyer Hafez Abuseada, one of the attorneys working on the case according to the president of the NCW, took to his Facebook account to demand the Public Prosecution provide concrete guarantees of confidentiality to the victims and propose a gag order on the case. He also suggested that the prosecutor conduct the examinations at the NCW offices and hear the girls’ complaints there, in order to protect their identities. 

The case has prompted swift changes to legislation. On Wednesday, the Cabinet approved a draft law intended to increase privacy protections for survivors who report instances of sexual violence. The legislation inserts several amendments into the Penal Code that require courts and the prosecution to keep the personal information of plaintiffs in a separate file that is kept private but can be made available to the prosecution or the defense in court upon request. In a statement, the Cabinet said the amendments were aimed at protecting the “reputations of the victims.”

Another long-sought legal reform that has gained traction is a unified law to combat all forms of violence against women. Three drafts have been on the shelf for years now: one proposed by the National Council of Women; the other jointly proposed by a number of feminist groups and sponsored by MP Nadia Henry; and the last introduced by MP Soulaf Darwish. Both Henry and Darwish have seized the moment in an attempt to bring the law to the top of Parliament’s agenda. 

Lawyer Azza Soliman, the President of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, has received about 11 complaints since the Instagram page went live from girls and women between the ages of 13 to 25 who were sexually assaulted by Zaki. “Ahmed’s case really subverts the rule of law, the way he flouts the law thanks to his power and his family’s power,” she told Mada Masr. “There’s a circle of corruption linked to his family’s influence, and that father has the power to buy off the police.” 

Ahmed’s father is Bassam Zaki, who for the past two years served as the deputy executive director of commercial affairs for Fiber Misr, a significant telecoms infrastructure company, and has long experience in the field. The firm is involved in various regional projects and has substantial dealings with the Egyptian government, including work in the new administrative capital and educational projects. In December, Fiber Misr announced its plans to expand into undersea cables in Africa and the region along with Egypt Telecom. The company is also partnered with the government to help make the transition to digital services in public-sector firms. Sources in Fiber Misr yesterday said that the company had accepted Zaki’s resignation. 

“All the girls are terrified of the guy and his family’s power,” Soliman told Mada Masr. “One girl said in her statement that he tried to rape her in a cinema four years ago. He had booked the whole cinema. When she filed a police report and they came to get the camera footage, they found nothing. Another girl, age 14, was sexually assaulted in April. One of the pieces of evidence she has is a photo of his penis he sent to her. The minors who have come to me said he committed the crimes when he was 18. I met one girl who has twice tried to kill herself. She didn’t know who to tell, because the guy is protected. She feels guilty that she didn’t take a stand in 2016 and it has traumatized her. Another girl was assaulted just as she was about to enter university. She told me that of course, she wasn’t able to get anything out of university.” 

Assuring the survivors she has met is the hardest part, according to Soliman: “The girls asked me, Will they be able to find us? The first girl who called me on Wednesday was so scared she couldn’t breathe. She filed a report and received a threat, even though her family is supportive. The other thing the girls were afraid of is that they’d be shamed, that their pictures would be published and bad things said about them. Some asked me whether they would have to undergo a virginity test.” According to Soliman, this fear reflects a lack of faith in the justice system and the rule of law. 

The legal system’s past handling of sexual violence cases does not inspire confidence in victims. In a case of sexual harassment and assault in August 2018, the assailants were sentenced to two years and three months in prison in September of that year. The survivors told Mada Masr at the time that they had received threats from the assailants’ families and had been harassed and pressured by police and prosecutors to withdraw the complaint. In July 2019, a microbus driver attempted to rape a girl from Ayyat, in the Giza governorate. She fought back and killed him in self-defense, and went to the police station. She was taken into custody and held for four months before the case was closed and she was finally released in November. 

Sherif Gamal, the executive director of the participation programs at the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, explains the practices common in police stations and prosecutors’ offices when dealing with these cases: “They try to dissuade the girls from reporting. They tell them to just say it was a theft, or not to file a rape report because it will affect their reputations. Or they won’t write down all the details the girls give them. If a girl goes to the prosecutor, she’s ridiculed, or the prosecutor will ask for all the details to embarrass her.” 

In the last three months, the prosecution has arrested at least eight female TikTok influencers and charged them with infringing the principles and values of Egyptian society, public indecency, and evading justice and attempting to elude the authorities. Among them is Menna Abdel Aziz, who spoke out about being raped and beaten, and — after authorities arrested both her and three attackers — she remains in custody in a women’s shelter. Soliman says this contradictory approach reflects an authoritarian, patriarchal mindset. The TikTok stars were arrested and shamed because they did things frowned on by society and did them publicly, not in secret. “No one even filed a report against Haneen Hossam, but she and the other girls were immediately imprisoned, charged with major crimes, and dragged through the mud,” she says. “But then they shield the face of Ahmed, the criminal. This tells us why girls are afraid to file reports.” 

Some of the detained TikTok women have been charged with prostitution and incitement to prostitution. Rights organizations have condemned the crackdown, which is being led by the Public Prosecution, describing it in a June statement as an application of “the flawed Law 175 of 2018” on information technology crimes. Article 25 of that law “penalizes anyone who attacks what the law calls ‘family principles or values in Egyptian society’ with six months imprisonment and/or a fine of no less than 50,000 EGP.” The statement notes the impossibility of concretely defining such values, which necessarily vary with time and place. 

Cases of sexual violence are prosecuted under the Penal Code. “We need to redefine our legal terminology,” Soliman says. “Our law is outdated. We took it from France, which later changed it, but we’ve kept it the same. Anal rape or rape using a hand or sharp instrument is classified by the law as an indecent violation, even though this is in fact rape. There have also been no advances in evidence gathering — we still rely solely on reports. To prove rape, it needs to be immediately reported to the prosecution and the victim should not take a shower and should preserve her clothing.” Soliman points out that rape victims often want to wash, shower, and get rid of their clothes as soon as they can. 

Soliman proposes that the prosecution change its evidence-gathering methods, pointing to problems in the Criminal Procedure Code. Prosecutors could make more extensive use of witnesses, expand investigations of the defendant, inquire at educational institutions where the defendant was enrolled about whether previous complaints were filed against them, and examine the records and cameras of places relevant to the incidents. Soliman also suggests that the assistance of social workers and psychologists should be sought during questioning. More generally, she highlights the need to train justice system personnel — police, prosecution, and judges — in how to deal with sexual violence cases and survivors. 

For his part, Gamal underscores the need for female prosecutors and judges to handle cases of sexual violence. This is actually a constitutional right, but it is not applied in all judicial bodies. Gamal explains that victims would find it more reassuring to give testimony before a female judge and it would encourage them to turn to the courts. He also proposes a specialized unit for violence against women at every police station, while allowing reports of sexual violence to be filed outside of police stations — at the NCW, for example — because of a long-standing social aversion to entering police stations. 

Aside from the legal issues, Gamal believes there is a social problem that must be addressed: victims of sexual violence tend to be stigmatized and blamed, which makes them reluctant to report. In many cases, instead of supporting their daughters, families take action against them — they lock them up at home, or punish them, or even kill them in cases of rape, believing that their daughters have dishonored them.

Hadeer El-Mahdawy 

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