FILE - Lawyer Khaled Ali during a press conference on January 11, 2018 – Egypt Today/Hussein Tallal
CAIRO – 22 February 2018: “I’m not expecting that anything is going to change as a result of sharing this with you. All that I expect – without pressures – is that you are going to share it with other girls, so they can take care of themselves. I am undergoing psychotherapy, and I know that I’m going to be fine; however, I need to tell this, because it’s eating me inside.”
That was a short paragraph of a long e-mail that shocked the NGO society and some of the political parties, leading to the sudden and huge resignation of prominent politician Khaled Ali who could have been named president twice.
Two separate stories loaded with a lot of anger, sorrow, vulnerability and, sometimes, grievance were included in an e-mail sent by an anonymous girl to some of her female friends and colleagues, most of whom are working in the civil society community and NGOs. The girl herself turned out later to be one of the prominent NGO activists. Her work is mostly affiliated with the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR). However, as the story was building, the girl was keen to preserve her privacy for many reasons.
The details inside the activist girl’s e-mail directly accuses two politicians of sexual harassment and even rape. The first one is prominent lawyer Khaled Ali, and the second, identified later, is a non-active member of the Bread and Freedom Party and activist, named Mahmoud Belal, known for his passion for working as a lawyer in human and women’s rights causes.
The real bang in this story came at its end, not at the beginning. Many uninterested or uneager followers for the NGO news or circles got to know the intricate details very recently —especially when Ali announced his apology and resignation from both Bread and Freedom Party and ECESR on February 19.
Khaled Ali resignation
Considered as a first in the Egyptian political and social community, veteran lawyer and human rights activist Khaled Ali issued a long statement on his official Facebook account on February 19, announcing his resignation as a member of the Bread and Freedom Party and as counselor for ECESR. He apologized to the e-mail girl for the harm that he might have caused previously and for affecting her feelings or making her think of him as a harasser. He apologized to his kids, family and all the women he worked with previously.
Ali made it clear that he was surprised by the e-mail that went viral between the NGO members. He said that he used to work with her and that he had nothing but respect for her during the long period of their working together.
“I thought a lot, and even talked about it with some of my friends, colleagues, and political and NGO activists. I heard a lot of suggestions – some of them advised to ignore the whole issue and others accused her of not being serious, as she didn’t issue a formal complaint to the prosecution. But I was only thinking about one thing, which is my willingness to undergo an investigation in case she asked for it, but later I wondered, what if she didn’t?” Ali wrote in his long statement.
Finally, he demanded that an investigation should be opened, regardless of whether she asked for it or not. “I asked some of my presidential election members to cooperate with other colleagues from the Bread and Freedom Party and form a committee to investigate me over the incident. Shortly later, one of the party members complained against the second lawyer (Mahmoud Belal), who was also accused by the e-mail. The same committee was investigating me and him as two separate incidents.”
“All what was described by the girl in her e-mail cannot be identified as sexual harassment. Accordingly, we believe that Ali didn’t commit anything that could be considered as sexual abuse of any kind.” That was the committee’s final judgment regarding Ali’s incident.
He didn’t mention Belal’s incident in any way, unless saying that some media outlets intended to mix between the two incidents. Further details, however, come from the Bread and Freedom Party statement issued February 17.
According to the statement, Belal’s incident was described by the committee as a “shameful act”, not harassment and not rape.
Many points missed...
Reading the statements raises a lot of questions: What is this committee? Who are its members? How were they chosen? What are the incidents exactly to be judged or identified as any kind of sexual abuse?
As far we know, the committee was formed as per Ali’s request. It was formed by two women and one man, all of whom are unidentified (officially). None of the statements issued by Ali or Ali’s political party named the committee members or mentioned anything about the mechanism of their work.
Many critics were directed to the committee by some of the NGO members and especially the e-mail girl’s friends and supporters. Accusations of not being transparent were circulated.
The committee started its work in December 2017. The Bread and Freedom Party said it was keen to assign members with a long history in feminist and legal matters. All three members were supposed to contact the e-mail girl as a crucial part of the investigation, along with other witnesses of the two incidents, but some refused to cooperate, including the e-mail girl herself.
On February 20, another statement, signed by 129 activists (until now), was issued regarding the incident, titled “a clarifying statement about the two sexual harassment incidents, approved by the complainer.”
The e-mail story
On October 13, 2017, the girl started to share the email with some of her friends, supporters and a mainly small circle of activist females. She then demanded, according to the signed statement, a formal and official apology from the activist who was accused of raping her. She wanted him to be banned of using any legal suit that could give him the privilege of being an activist lawyer specialized in women’s rights cases.
It was explained clearly that the girl refused to go to the prosecution, as she denies the “jailing punishment” idea from her perspective as an activist. Moreover, the girl believed that any legal investigation will only cause her more psychological harm, as no serious procedures would be taken as a result of the lack of eyewitnesses for the two incidents.
“She preferred instead to warn her colleagues and friends rather than issuing a legal complaint. The main purpose of the email was to open a real dialogue between the NGO community members about consent and sexual exploitation of women who work within the civil society,” the statement read.
The e-mail dates the Khaled Ali incident to 2015 at the headquarters of ECESR, and the second (rape accusation) in 2014, as she was at her friend’s apartment under the influence of alcohol.
When she was first requested by the committee to join the investigation, she refused. But later, she demanded some guarantees, including knowing the committee members’ names. She also wanted to know some details about the committee’s work strategy and whether the final results were to be announced to the public. Finally, she wanted to name one or two members to join the committee.
The response was that they will look at her demands after her approval to join the investigation. Accordingly, she turned the whole investigation down.
Women’s rights within the NGO community
The whole resignation and the investigation were not mentioned within the joint statement as the core of the case. Surprisingly, the core was the problem the civil society is facing when a similar incident take place. “NGOs tend to separate the political affairs from the feminine causes and sexual freedom issues, which is a naïve belief,” the statement read. It also criticized the ignorance of women's rights defenders of the basics of dealing with sexual harassment survivors and ways of investigating the cases in which only the testimonies of both parties (abuser and victim) are available.
It was said that all the consequences that took place recently were just a result of the lack of transparency and the “right of knowledge” principle.
Finally, the statement described the incident and its consequences, including the committee’s work, as “ignorance, inaction and deliberate blackout for the favor of political interests.” The statement continued, “what is really shameful is using the female card only when it’s proper for the political and personal interests.” The statement concluded by calling on civil society’s prominent leaders to take an initiative to open the sexual abuse issue and set rules for providing a “safe place” for the survivors.
Egypt Today tried to contact several NGO lawyers, leaders and even some of the members that we knew were part of the investigation; however, all of them either refused to comment or did not feel comfortable being quoted.
Excluding the law in this incident was explained by two reasons. The first one was the girl’s refusal for the “jailing punishment” idea, and the second was all of the gaps that the law suffers from, especially when it comes to women’s issues. However, does it sound a persuading reason for not going to police?
As explained to Egypt Today by sources refused to be quoted in this story, NGOs are supposed to be the same as any other body inside the state, having their own administrative regulations against sexual harassment at work that do not conflict with state regulations, as all the bodies and organizations eventually adhere only to the state’s law.
So many “no’s” were heard from sources who refused to comment on anything related to this story, either the committee’s work or the NGO regulations for protecting female activists working with them. It was obvious that NGO members do not feel comfortable talking about their colleagues or any issues and challenges that they may be facing inside. Additionally, the dispute this issue caused between the activist members and NGOs regarding the investigation mechanism, excluding law and using the female card for certain interests, cannot be ignored.
The NGOs and female activists in Egypt had a crucial role regarding breaking the silence on harassment and all kinds of violence against women. Years of campaigns and hard work improved the situation and melted the ice that was culturally inherited as a Middle Eastern society in which a girl is blamed for her loud voice as inappropriate.
Worthy to know
Lawyer and human activist Khaled Ali was formally a presidential candidate during the 2012 elections; however, he got only 134,056 votes, according to the National Election Authority (NEA) statement. Also, on November 6, 2017, Ali officially announced his intention to run for the 2018 presidential elections, but he later retracted his decision for political reasons. Ali is also considered one of the left-wing political figures in Egypt. He has several well-known political stances that earned him a popular base. It is unconventional for an Egyptian politician to apologize and resign after being charged with sexual harassment; more stubborn attitudes are common in similar cases.
Several sexual harassment and abuse incidents were spotted in Egypt’s streets for a period of time, especially after the 2011 Revolution. In a study by the United Nations in 2013, it was assumed that about 99 percent of Egyptian women experienced different forms of sexual harassment. According to Egyptian law, sexual harassment punishment could reach one year in prison, while that of rape could be up to fifteen years.