Egypt's President Sisi tells interior minister to fight sexual harassment

CAIRO - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has ordered the interior minister to fight sexual harassment following the arrest of seven men for attacking women near Cairo's Tahrir Square during his inauguration celebrations, his office said on Tuesday.

Egypt issued a new law last week that punishes sexual harassment with at least six months in jail or fines of at least 3,000 Egyptian pounds (S$524). Judicial sources said the arrests were made under the new law.

Sunday night's attacks took place as thousands of people enjoyed inauguration festivities, raising new worries about Egypt's commitment to fighting sexual violence. The arrests came after a graphic video was posted on YouTube on Sunday showing a naked woman with injuries on her hip being dragged through a large crowd towards an ambulance. It drew a massive public outcry.

"President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi instructed the minister of interior... to vigorously enforce the law and take all necessary measures to combat sexual harassment, an unacceptable form of conduct," the presidency said in a statement. "The President calls on all citizens to undertake their part to reinstate the true spirit of ethical and moral values in Egyptian society... This should come in parallel with the state's efforts to robustly enforce the law."

Sexual assault was rampant at demonstrations during and after the 2011 uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak and has been common for a decade at large gatherings in Egypt.

It is not clear whether those arrested took part in the assault shown on the YouTube video. The Interior Ministry listed the names of the men, aged 15 to 49, and where they lived.

Prosecutors are detaining them pending investigations. Two of the men admitted beating a woman, while five denied any wrongdoing and said the women had provoked them, judicial sources said.

Mr Sisi has frequently spoken highly of women and their importance to society. A police officer who rescued the victim of sexual harassment should be honoured, he ordered, in an apparent reference to the woman in the video.

Some liberals were initially wary of Mr Sisi, especially after remarks he made defending an army practice - later denied by an army court - of conducting "virginity tests" on female protesters who complained of abuse.

Many say Egyptian society as a whole needs to take sexual harassment more seriously. One female television presenter on a private channel giggled when her colleague mentioned the harassment in Tahrir. The people were simply "happy", she said.

Sexual harassment, high rates of female genital cutting and a surge in violence after the Arab Spring uprisings have made Egypt the worst country in the Arab world to be a woman, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey showed late last year.