The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The car ad tried to extol its HD camera. Instead, it promoted sexual harassment in Egypt, critics say.

Activists spray-paint graffiti that reads in Arabic, “Egypt has women,” during a 2012 campaign supporting Egyptian women's rights in Cairo. (Nasser Nasser/AP)
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A man in a chic car stops suddenly in front of a woman crossing the street. He snaps her picture through a forward-facing camera in the rearview mirror as she looks at him, having not consented to being photographed. He smiles as her image then appears on his phone.

This scene played out in an advertisement by French carmaker Citroën featuring Egyptian megastar Amr Diab, an ad that the company withdrew Thursday following criticism in Egypt that it was promoting the harassment of women.

Gender-based online abuse surged during the pandemic. Laws haven’t kept up, activists say.

The advertisement, released this month and featuring the 60-year-old singer, was intended to highlight an HD camera connected to the company’s C4 car. Instead, it sparked condemnation on social media, where some criticized the clip as normalizing sexual harassment and questioned how those involved approved it.

“Taking a picture of a woman without her consent is creepy,” Egyptian American writer and activist Reem Abdellatif tweeted Wednesday. “You’re enabling sexual harassment.”

Citroën Egypt said in a statement posted on Instagram that it does not tolerate harassment and offered “sincere apologies” to anyone offended by the ad, which it described as having “been perceived as inappropriate.”

“We deeply regret and understand the negative interpretation of this part of this film,” the company said.

The pandemic caused a global surge in domestic violence. For victims with few options, abuse has become the new normal.

But others found fault with the wording in Citroën’s announcement.

“The scene itself was negative, it was not the ‘interpretation’ that was negative,” commented Speak Up, an anti-violence feminist initiative, under Citroën’s statement on Instagram. “Apologize because the idea and the scene were a mistake, not because ‘some consider it inappropriate.’”

“Thank you to people who did not accept seeing an advertisement like this,” Speak Up added.

Under fire for abuses, Egypt releases human rights strategy to mixed reviews

Close to two-thirds of men in Egypt have sexually harassed women or girls in public, according to a 2017 survey by U.N. Women and Promundo, a D.C.-based organization focused on engaging boys and men about gender equality. The survey also found that three-quarters of men considered “provocative” dress by women a “legitimate” reason to harass.

In studies, most women in Egypt report experiencing sexual harassment, although the topic remains socially stigmatized and legal recourse often limited.

The issue gained more public attention following Egypt’s 2011 revolution that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. But in the years since, under the direction of President Abdul Fatah al-Sissi, the state has cracked down on social and political reform efforts, impeding what activists say is the systemic change needed to combat gender-based abuse.

Egypt’s women are rising up against sexual violence. Others are still being jailed for TikToks.

Nonetheless, over the past two years, Egyptian women have been increasingly vocal on social media, detailing the sexual harassment they have faced. That has led to several high-profile legal cases.

In July 2020, a wave of women on social media accused Ahmed Bassam Zaki, a former student at the American University of Cairo, of rape, blackmail and sexual assault. The case swiftly gained global attention, highlighting how many victims stay silent for fear of being blackmailed or publicly shamed. Zaki was sentenced to 11 years in jail in two subsequent verdicts in December 2020 and April of this year.

In another case in May 2020, Menna Abdel Aziz, an Egyptian teenager popular on TikTok, posted a video of herself sobbing and bruised, saying she had been kidnapped and raped. Egyptian authorities responded by jailing her under charges of “debauchery” for the outfits she wore in her TikToks. After a public campaign, Abdel Aziz was released. In May of this year, five men were sentenced to prison terms of three to 11 years on charges including rape and kidnapping.

That same month, Egypt’s public prosecutor closed the case of a woman who alleged she was gang-raped by wealthy men at a luxury hotel, the Fairmont, in 2014. The court said there was insufficient evidence and ordered the defendants released. Seven of the nine men fled abroad. Three were later charged with rape in a separate case. In November, one of the men was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and two others were sentenced in absentia to life terms.

Public discussion of sexual harassment and gender-based violence remains taboo across much of the Middle East.

On Tuesday, a fistfight erupted among male members of Jordan’s parliament while they were discussing constitutional reforms. The brawl broke out as lawmakers debated whether to add the female form of the Arabic noun for “citizen” to a clause about equal rights. The entire incident was live-streamed on Jordanian TV.

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