In a sign of how serious the escalation of sexual assaults in Egypt has become, the White House has now weighed in on the issue, delivering a stern warning to the Morsi government on the recent gang rapes and other attacks on women during demonstrations around the country. The very public nature of these assaults, perpetrated in full view of reporters and other demonstrators, has made the issue increasingly difficult to ignore. Egyptian activists have long been clamoring for their government to seriously address the issue and to take measures to protect women in public place. Washington’s step into the fray, however, will not offer any real relief.
While the approval of their major ally is certainly important to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, the White House’s specific criticism may have just provided his administration with the perfect means of shifting the discourse on the issue, which has so far been highly critical of the Morsi administration’s inaction (or, according to Egyptian activist groups like OpAntiSh, its implicit support for attackers).
Washington’s condemnation effectively singled out Islamists responsible for blaming victims of assaults. The Brotherhood, which till now has felt the need to put some distance between itself and offensive comments on the issue from party members like Reda Saleh Al-Hefnawi — who questioned why women would expect to be protected while standing among men — has a strong tactical opening here. Expect continued public lip-service (heavy with caveats) to the importance of protecting women — and a permissiveness towards supporters who share Al-Hefnawi’s mindset as they fashion Washington’s criticism into a weapon for discrediting the opposition. American support, after all, has long been a double-edged sword in Egypt. Political figures, groups, and causes which have Washington’s public backing (including the current Brotherhood government) risk disparagement in the Egyptian public sphere as suspicions about the American agenda (or any foreign agenda, for that matter) loom large.
In short, look for the Brotherhood to promote a narrative of foreign intervention in Egypt through the vehicle of women’s rights. A repeat, basically, of the the response to the U.N. declaration on women’s rights, which Morsi’s administration vocally decried as a cultural imposition incompatible with Islamic or Egyptian values (with perhaps more daylight between the actual administration and those doing the pushback). Grim news for Egypt’s female activists and for the secular, liberal elements of the opposition. Grimmer still for advocates of soft-power interventions into the Egyptian crisis.