Tag: North Africa

Cairo University chief blames woman’s dress for sexual harassment

The head of Egypt’s leading state university has provoked furious condemnation for claiming that an on-campus sexual harassment case was the fault of its female victim, and saying that she may be punished.

The Cairo University student was surrounded on Monday by a group of male students who sexually harassed her as she walked across a busy campus. The woman was later escorted from the university by campus security, and the incident was filmed by bystanders – many of whom appear unconcerned, or eager to join in – and uploaded to social media.

One male student can be heard saying: “Guys, I’m going to upload it on Facebook – whoever wants to watch this video, come to my page.”

The university’s president, Dr Nasser Gaber, added to public outcry when he told a television talkshow the incident had resulted in part from the woman wearing colourful clothes, instead of a more conservative cloak, or “abaya”‘. He also said that she may face punishment for the incident along with her harassers, and possibly expulsion.

Gaber told OnTV, a private Egyptian network: “The girl took off her abaya inside the university and appeared with those clothes – which was a reason for what happened … we don’t require a uniform here but clothes should be within the tradition of our society.”

He added: “The girl’s mistake doesn’t justify what happened to her at the hands of those students. We referred the whole incident to an investigation and everything is recorded by the university cameras. We will find out who is guilty – whether the girl or the [other] students – and we are going to punish them with the proper punishment, which might be expulsion from the university.”

‘Insanely appalling’
Women’s rights activists reacted furiously to Gaber’s remarks. Soraya Bahgat, the founder of Tahrir Bodyguards, a group that rescues women from mob sexual assaults during protests, said: “I find it insanely appalling that the head of arguably the most important university in Egypt said that her clothes were to blame. It was very alarming – but part of me is glad that this has come out, because it highlights one of the things that is wrong with this society, which is to blame the victim [of sexual harassment] for what happened.”

Following criticism of his remarks, Gaber said he had been misunderstood. “It is clear that a false perception has been generated among some people that I placed the responsibility for what happened on the student,” he told the website of the official state newspaper. “I assure you that this is not true and I apologise for the misunderstanding.

An Egyptian protester holds up a knife during a demonstration to demand an end to sexual violence against women on February 6 2013 in the Egyptian capital of Cairo. (Pic: AFP)
An Egyptian protester holds up a knife during a demonstration to demand an end to sexual violence against women on February 6 2013 in the Egyptian capital of Cairo. (Pic: AFP)

Although Gaber said that the incident was a one-off, sexual harassment is endemic throughout Egyptian society. In the past 18 months many more people have begun to mobilise against it, but sexual harassment still remains an accepted part of Egyptian life. According to a UN survey, 99.3% of Egyptian women reported being sexually harassed, with 91% saying they felt insecure in the street as a result.

Women are frequently blamed for harassment, while the crime is not properly defined under Egyptian law, which makes prosecuting perpetrators difficult. When women try to file complaints under more general harassment and assault laws, their cases are not taken seriously by police, and only there have only been a handful of convictions.

Egypt’s first Oscar-nominated film not shown at home

Directors of Egypt’s first Oscar-nominated film will be walking the red carpet at the Oscars ceremony this weekend in Los Angeles, but most Egyptians have yet to see the hard-hitting movie that chronicles the country’s unrest over the past three years.

Far from being widely celebrated in Egypt, the film has not been shown at Egyptian film festivals or theaters after running into problems with censorship authorities. The filmmakers say they have been blocked because of their portrayal of the country’s military-backed governments. They still hope to get approval for wider distribution.

“It’s a kind of politics disguised in bureaucracy,” said Karim Amer, the film’s producer, taking a line that one of the film’s central character uses to describe the government’s counter-revolutionary actions.

The Square, named for Tahrir, or Liberty Square, is built around the geographic focal point of the uprising, where millions of Egyptians gathered to protest Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the rule of the generals who succeeded him and now-deposed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. It recounts the country’s recent turmoil, beginning when Mubarak stepped down in 2011 through August 2013, right before security forces stormed two protest camps of Morsi supporters, killing hundreds.


The filmmakers tell the story through the eyes of three protesters hailing from different backgrounds. The self-described revolutionaries are Ahmed Hassan, a streetwise idealist; Khalid Abdalla, a British-Egyptian Hollywood actor raised abroad by his exiled activist father; and Magdy Ashour, a member of Morsi’s Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed and labeled a terrorist organization by the government installed by the military.

The movie follows their ideological trajectories, from hope and exuberance to disappointment and disillusion.

Ashour grows apart from the Brotherhood. He goes to protest in the square even after the group has prohibited members from demonstrating because, he says, the demands of the revolution have still not been met by the country’s interim leaders. Abdalla struggles to convince his exiled father that his activism will bear fruit, and Hassan suffers a head injury while throwing rocks at security forces and falls into a depression.

“The good and free people are being called agents and traitors, and the agents and traitors are being called heroes,” Hassan narrates over scenes of ambulances carrying away wounded protesters.

The film’s director, Jehane Noujaim, who grew up in Egypt, said she wanted to tell the story in a way that would let viewers in 50 or 100 years feel “that energy and that spirit of being in the square.”

Depiction of the military
The footage includes graphic images of bloodied bodies getting smashed by military vehicles, police dragging a protester’s limp body across the street and other scenes of brutality. At one point, a protester kneels on the sidewalk, weeping, with the blood of comrades on his hands.

“Our army is killing us. They are killing us,” the protester says. “They’ve forgotten Egypt.”

That depiction of the Egyptian military, which removed Morsi in July, is the reason the filmmakers believe the film has not been licensed for showing in Egypt.

But the project has gained acclaim in the West, winning audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival and at Toronto and Montreal festivals. It was acquired last year by subscription service Netflix.

In Egypt, it’s only available through YouTube and illegal downloads. After the academy announced the Oscar nominations, the film was hacked and released on the Internet. Amer estimates that more than 1.5 million people have watched it online.

“What’s been fantastic is to see the overwhelming ability of the internet to show truth from fiction,” he said.

Censorship authorities
Ahmed Awad, undersecretary to the Minister of Culture and head of censorship, told The Associated Press that the film has not been banned in Egypt for any political reasons. He said it was not shown because the film’s producers did not file the proper paperwork. He called the filmmakers’ accusations of repression “propaganda” designed to attract more attention.

“I am very happy about the Oscars, because it’s a very high level of art,” Awad said. “We are not against the film, but there are laws. I can’t make exceptions.”

Noujaim said that the team submitted the film to censorship authorities in September and received verbal permission to show it at a festival. But, she explained, the film never received an official letter to that effect, and the filmmakers did not feel comfortable proceeding without a formal permit given the tense political climate. She said they are appealing and submitting additional paperwork.

Some Egyptians who have seen the film say it is designed more for educating a Western audience than interpreting the country’s recent history, that it glosses over some events and does not capture the nuance of post-revolutionary politics.

Joe Fahim, an Egyptian film curator and critic, said the film is not an artistic masterpiece, but he believes it’s an important film for Egyptian audiences because it can serve as a record of the country’s political upheaval.

“It’s a reminder of the turbulent history of the past three years,” Fahim said.

Noujaim, who last month received a Directors Guild documentary award for The Square, said the film is ultimately an ode to the activists who made the revolution happen.

“That’s the only thing that’s ever worked – a dedicated few that stick to their principles, stick to every battle, and once in a while, they’re able to inspire the majority,” she said.

Despite the setbacks, Amer added, what’s fundamentally changed in Egypt is that “the young Egyptian voice that’s been born in that square is unwilling to give up, and I think that’s what our film chronicles and shows.” – Sapa-AP

Tunisia’s desert dunes lure amateur astronomers and Star Wars aficionados

Deep in Tunisia’s Sahara desert is an otherworldly planet familiar to Star Wars fans: Tatooine, the twin-mooned childhood home of Darth Vader.

Once a pilgrimage site for aficionados of the cult sci-fi film, the dune-swept landscape that provided the backdrop for almost every Star Wars movie, among many others, has been out of reach since the Tunisian uprising, which kickstarted the Arab Spring three years ago. Now, as the North African country inches towards a successful transition to democracy, many hope that will change.

The set of Star Wars Episode 1 in the Sahara desert in Tunisia. (Pic: Flickr / Pondspider)
The set of Star Wars Episode 1 in the desert in Tunisia. (Pic: Flickr / Pondspider)

“We have a new government and we’re full of hope,” said Taieb Jallouli, the set director who oversaw the Star Wars shoots in the country, speaking as Tunisia’s Parliament passed a long-awaited new Constitution. Seen as the final step towards establishing a democracy after an uprising that toppled the autocratic ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, it could be help lure back film fans and desert adventure tourists, whose numbers plummeted during the turbulence of the uprising.

“[Star Wars director] George Lucas always said he loved the light in Tunisia’s southern desert. We hope old directors and a wave of young, new ones will come back now there’s stability,” said Jallouli, who was also artistic director for The English Patient and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, which were both partially filmed in Tunisia.

The creators of imaginary galaxies like Star Wars aside, peace in Tunisia’s deserts also stands to benefit a small group of people more interested in real extraterrestrial objects: meteorite-hunters. Star Wars‘ Tatooine is named after the Tunisian town of Tataouine, the site of a famous meteorite landing in 1931. A small group of meteorite-hunters are keen to resume a hobby that has been largely impossible since the revolution.

Architecture from southern Tunisia that inspired the Star Wars films. (Pic: Flickr / Henry Patton)
Buildings in Tataouine inspired George Lucas for his Star Wars films. (Pic: Flickr / Henry Patton)

Sofien Kanoun, president of Tunisia’s 40-strong amateur astronomy society, said: “We’ve asked the government for permission to undertake meteorite-hunting expeditions in the desert because some of those areas have become military zones during the last three years.

“In the desert, there’s a huge surface area of land that’s uninhabited, so it’s the best place for successfully recovering any fragments which don’t land in the sea. We need them to have a better idea of the birth of the solar system.”

For now, as news of jihadists training in remote regions has made large swathes of the Sahara too dangerous for travel, the group relies on a human chain of Berbers who live in the desert to pass on information.

“I personally count on citizens who call me up to say they have got bits of meteorite,” said Hichem Ben Yahyoui, the association’s treasurer, waving a page of complicated formulae that explain the supersonic path of a meteorite, which landed between Tunisia and Algeria last September. “We were the first to calculate the trajectory and pass on the information to [professional scientists] about exactly where in Algeria it fell,” he added proudly.

The amateur astronomers also battle a lack of funding, and hardline Islamists who have cracked down against everything from art shows to rap music. Government funding for Tunisian astronomy has dwindled to a trickle, though the country was once home to Muslim scholars such as Ibn Ishaq whose works still influence modern physics and astronomy. With a symbolic membership fee of 2 dinars (75p) a year, Tunisia’s amateur astronomers rely largely on pooling their own money together to fund trips, build experimental rockets or order sophisticated equipment only available from abroad.

Mundane earthly difficulties have not stopped them from reaching for the stars. Every few weeks Yahyoui, who also volunteers as a curator at Tunisia’s science museum in his spare time, journeys to meet other fellow space-lovers across the Arab world.

“It’s dangerous but I don’t mind taking the risks because it’s a labour of love,” he said, ahead of a recent trip to advise on the building of a space museum in Libya, where internal conflict has seen a spate of abductions and political assassinations by militia gangs this month alone.

“As amateurs we do it for ourselves, to pass on knowledge through each generation,” he said, standing beneath a staircase spiralling upwards to a blue planet encircled by red rings.

Libya aims to become tourist hotspot of the future

Ikram Bash Imam freely admits it is not an easy task to persuade a sceptical world that the “new” Libya, still awash with weapons and rival militias, is a holiday destination worth considering.

There is no question about the pull of attractions: more than 1 000 miles of pristine Mediterranean beaches, magnificent Roman and Greek ruins, palm-fringed oases and Saharan troglodyte caves. And while Libyan cuisine may lack the sophistication of its Maghreb neighbours, the country is remarkably unspoilt.

“Libya is a beautiful place and we are a hospitable people and we have much to show to visitors,” says Imam, tourism minister in a government whose prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was briefly, but embarrassingly, abducted by gunmen in Tripoli last month. (“It’s true that this is a very challenging issue,” she says.)

Young Libyans in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Tripoli. (Pic: AFP)
Young Libyans enjoy a dip in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Tripoli. (Pic: AFP)

Muammar Gaddafi’s violent demise at the hands of Nato-backed rebels two years ago has left the north African country open to the world for the first time in more than four decades. But the barriers to tourism are daunting: dozens of heavily armed militias, a desperately weak central government, jihadi terrorism and, to some, the threat of state collapse.

The scale of violence is exaggerated by the media, says Imam, receiving visitors and well-wishers at the Libyan stand at this week’s World Travel Market in London’s Docklands, a pulsating mass of laminated-badged industry insiders struggling under the weight of brochures, DVDs and posters.

“Everyone focuses on the violence but most armed clashes are between [Libyan] individuals and groups. It is not a war. When young people can get back to work and the economy is more normal and we have our elections and constitution they will hand in their weapons.”

Sensibly, Imam is taking the long view and moving cautiously. The short-term plan is first to build up domestic tourism and raise revenues to 4% of GDP over the next two years. International tourism comes after that. Diversifying employment away from the dominant energy sector is an important element of the government’s overall economic strategy.

Urgent work needs to be done. The Unesco-recognised world heritage sites at Leptis Magna and Sabratha are still badly neglected, though plans are under way to develop the lush hills of Jebel Akhdar, south of Benghazi, and Jebel Nafusa in the western mountains.

The ancient Roman city of Sabratha used to attract more than 20 000 foreign visitors annually before the 2011 conflict that ousted Muammar Gaddafi. Now the temples and mosaics overlooking the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean are usually deserted. (Pic: Reuters)
The ancient Roman city of Sabratha used to attract more than 20 000 foreign visitors annually before the 2011 conflict that ousted Muammar Gaddafi. Now the temples and mosaics overlooking the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean are usually deserted. (Pic: Reuters)

“We have to be realistic and we have to be honest about what we say and promote what we have,” says Imam. “The new Libya will not be closed to the world. We were cut off for too long. We don’t want to have hundreds of thousands of tourists coming without the infrastructure and services to receive them with high standards and in an honourable way. We need to lay the foundations for our industry.”

Libya is not entirely a blank slate. Modest growth began in Gaddafi’s final years, with some niche adventure travel and several spectacular hotels built in Tripoil – including the lavish Turkish-owned Rixos, where foreign journalists were virtually imprisoned during the revolution, and the supposedly secure Corinthia, the scene of Zeidan’s kidnapping. Later this year an international marathon is being held at Ghat deep in the Sahara.

Other practical problems include the difficulty of getting tourist visas from Libyan embassies: in one change, group visas can be obtained by travel companies on arrival. And friendly governments, including the UK, advise against all travel to parts of the country – including Benghazi and Derna – and all but essential travel elsewhere in Libya. The Foreign Office cites “a high threat from terrorism including kidnapping”. It adds: “Violent clashes between armed groups are possible across the country, particularly at night. You should remain vigilant at all times.”

Imam also agrees that Libya’s identity as a conservative Muslim country poses problems for mass tourism from the west. But it should, not, she suggests, be an insuperable one. “When I am in London and it’s raining, I need an umbrella. Yes we are Muslim society and we don’t want to offer alcohol. If people want alcohol they can go elsewhere.

“Our plan is that when you come to Libya you will enjoy the Libyan experience. Libyans are not closed-minded. But visitors must respect the country and its values.”

Libya’s problems are not unique. Nearby stands in the Middle East and North Africa section at the World Travel Market include a large but very quiet Iraqi one – where gaily coloured Beduin carpets and brass coffee pots have no obvious effect on countering the negative impact of Baghdad’s repeated suicide bombings. Tunisia, one of the few relatively bright spots of the Arab spring, is moderately busy. On the Egyptian stand – complete with plaster sphinxes – the emphasis is on Red Sea resorts far from the tensions of Cairo. Palestinians are trying to promote Jerusalem and Bethlehem in competition with Israel.

Lebanon’s stand displays fine wines but is also quieter than usual – tourist revenues affected by the war next door. Syria has not even been represented for the past two years. “There’s no point,” said a glum Arab tour operator. “It’s suicidal to even go there.”

Moroccans stage ‘kiss-in’ to support accused teens

A few dozen Moroccans staged a symbolic “kiss-in” Saturday in support of three teenagers arrested for posting pictures on Facebook of two of them smooching.

Only around a dozen couples actually locked lips in the gathering outside Parliament, but the demonstrators insisted they had defended the right to public displays of affection in Morocco’s conservative society.

Participants take part in a "kiss-in" outside the Parliament in the Moroccan capital Rabat on October 12 2013. (Pic: AFP)
Participants take part in a “kiss-in” outside the Parliament in the Moroccan capital Rabat on October 12 2013. (Pic: AFP)

The kissing case has sparked uproar online, with netizens protesting against what they see as creeping conservatism in the Muslim country long known for being relatively liberal and tolerant.

More than 2 000 people had indicated they would take part in Saturday’s “kiss-in” but the vast majority failed to show, indicating a gulf between online activism and actual on-the-street protests.

The demonstrators gathered outside Parliament for “a symbolic kiss of love”, one participant, Nizar Benamate, told AFP after the display before a group of onlookers and reporters.

“For us, the message got through. It was a success. There were couples and single people, and the couples were not embarrassed in public,” said Ibtissam Lachgar, one of the organisers.

“Our message is that they are defending love, the freedom to love and kiss freely,” she said.

A small group of counter-protesters shoved some of the couples and threw chairs.

“We are an Islamic country and kissing in public is forbidden. A simple kiss can lead to other things. These are atheists who are acting against Islam,” one of them said.

After the brief scuffle the two groups dispersed peacefully.

The couple at the heart of the case, a boy and a girl aged 15 and 14, and their 15-year-old male friend who took the photos outside their school in the northern town of Nador, were arrested last week, charged with “violating public decency” and held in a juvenile centre.

The case lit up social media, with several young people posting similar kissing pictures on Facebook and Twitter and calling for “kiss-ins” in an online rebellion against conservatives.

Amid mounting pressure, the judge ordered that the teens be released on bail three days later, and their trial Friday was adjourned until November 22 to allow “an inquiry into the social circumstances of the teenagers,” their lawyer said.