Amal Fathy was having a bad day. Twice within a few hours, men sexually harassed the 33-year-old Egyptian ex-actress and model. First, a taxi driver groped her, and then a couple of hours later a bank guard grabbed his crotch as he made lurid comments about her. In between both incidents, she wrestled with rude, overworked bank officials to get a replacement debit card.
By the time she got home, she had had enough. She went on Facebook and vented. In a 12-minute profanity-laced May 9 video perhaps inspired by the spirit of the #MeToo movement in the U.S. and around the world, she voiced her anger about being sexually harassed and life in general in Egypt.
“Screw anything that has the name of Egypt in it,” she ranted. “Today the policeman at the bank was talking dirty to me while grabbing his penis. Screw the police.”
Within 36 hours, Fathy and her husband, human-rights activist Mohamed Lotfy, and their 2-year-old son were hauled away from their apartment by police in the middle of the night. Lotfy and their son were released after several hours, but Fathy was locked up in a notorious women’s prison. She was charged with crimes that include membership in a terrorist organization, calling for terrorist acts over the internet, and spreading false news that “damages the public order and harms national security.”
Many hoped the re-election of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi earlier in March would give him the confidence to ease up on the regime’s five-year crackdown against dissidents. But the arrest of Fathy—a stay-at-home mother who has only a minimum connection to politics—shows how little space there remains for dissent in Egypt.
Many also suspect the arrest is meant as a message to Lotfy and those aiding in the investigation of the killing of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, who was abducted and tortured to death, allegedly by Egyptian security officials, in a 2016 case that continues to haunt relations between Cairo and the West. In a further sign of a tightening crackdown, Egyptian authorities on Friday arrested attorney Haitham Mohamedeen on accusations he was behind rowdy Cairo protests over a subway-fare increase.
“Anyone still with the hope that Sisi would be softening his political repression in his second term should be disabused of that delusion at this point,” said Timothy Kaldas, a Cairo-based political scientist at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The state’s zero-tolerance policy towards its critics remains in full effect.”
Egypt is regarded as one of the toughest places in the world for women making their way through public spaces, with physical and verbal harassment rife, especially in big cities like Cairo and Alexandria. According to a 2013 U.N. study, nearly all Egyptian women have described some sort of unwanted attention from men. Egyptian authorities recently approved a new law to punish those who harass tourists and have reportedly dispatched undercover operatives into parks to target harassers.
But Fathy’s case shows the limits of what the Egyptian regime can tolerate when there is a public outcry, and the terrifying lengths it will go to silence critics.
Frenetic banging on the front door of Fathy’s home came two days after she published the video, on May 11 at around 2:30 a.m. Lotfy, her husband, told me he stumbled out of bed and peered out the peephole of the front door. Several black-clad men, some wearing masks, wielded assault rifles. Fathy got dressed, and Lotfy pulled on his own trousers before opening the door. Both pleaded with the state security and police officials who flooded their third-floor apartment in the Maadi district not to make too much of a ruckus and wake up their baby son as they rummaged through the family’s papers and personal belongings.
The highest-ranking state security official pulled a chair from the dining room and sat down.
In the days since she published her video, pro-government media had reposted it, tarring her as a member of the leftist April 6 Movement that led the 2011 uprising against longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.
“So, Amal,” the state security official said, according to Lotfy, “You know what you did. You really angered the people up there.”
Lotfy described his wife as not particularly political, just one of the many Egyptians inspired to take an interest in their country’s affairs following the 2011 Tahrir Square revolution that went sour after an elected Islamist was toppled in Sisi’s 2013 coup.
She tried to explain to the officer that she had been very upset when she posted the video. “I was harassed twice,” she told the official, according to Lotfy. “I had a very bad day.”
The security officials said they had a warrant for her arrest, but collected Lotfy and their child as well. Lotfy convinced the police to let them bring along an iPad, to keep their son distracted. At some point he also managed to get a call to their lawyer, who showed up at the police station.
The charges were severe. Among them was broadcasting a video on Facebook as a public means to incite the toppling of the Egyptian regime. Fathy eventually was taken to al-Qanater women’s prison north of Cairo. Lotfy visited her Thursday. “She was crying a lot. She wanted to see the boy and was upset I didn’t bring the boy,” he said.
Unlike hardened activists, Fathy has never been to prison or even inside a police station. Lotfy, who once worked for Amnesty International and now oversees the nongovernmental Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, said he’s worried won’t be able to take the pressure and that the harsh treatment of his wife is meant to silence him. The arrest, which been highlighted by international human-rights groups as well as European parliamentarians, came just ahead of a visit by Italian investigators seeking to examine closed-circuit television footage related to Regeni’s disappearance.
“They could not find a way to intimidate me, so they used my wife to give them a way in,” Lotfy told The Daily Beast. “Their aim is to basically punish her and arrest her and to tie my hands. They went after my family hoping to get information about me and my work.”