Chapter 8: Sex and assault
While we reporters obsess about Egypt’s politics and struggles between protesters and the military, and I write about how friendly Egyptians are to me and to each other, there is a much larger and arguably more important scenario playing out every day in every place – routine degradation of women.
The second time I saw Mariam that hot summer day, she was shaking, almost sobbing. Friends were trying to calm her down.
The first time I saw her, she was taking pictures at Cairo’s Tahrir Square. I saw her focus on a single orange at a curbside juice stand, amused that, as usual, a non-visual radio reporter (me) failed to understand the visual arts.
Mariam (not her real name) is a young but seasoned news photographer from a neighboring Arab country. Mariam has seen a lot. But nothing like this.
I found out later that between the first time and the second time I saw her, she was sexually assaulted by a gang of young Egyptian men. They surrounded her on Tahrir Square, the symbol of Egypt’s progressive revolution, prodding, poking and grabbing her everywhere. Another photographer, a young Arab man, rescued her.
I was off doing what radio reporters do, getting myself into the middle of a street-corner political debate somewhere else on the huge downtown plaza. So I, too, was surrounded by Egyptian men. Mine were friendly. Of course they were. I’m a guy.
The extent to which women are targets of assault, harassment and just plain bothering here is hard to fathom. Every woman I know, whatever her age, appearance, race, religion or background, has been a target. Every one. It’s catcalls in restaurants, whistles and lewd comments on streets – or worse. Much, much worse.
And all the while, I walk around wherever I want with no fears and no concerns. So much so that it’s easy for me to forget – and then berate myself for forgetting – that half the people here don’t have that luxury.
Before we get started, two caveats: First, these are explanations, not excuses – there is no excuse. Second, female sexual frustration isn’t even on the public radar screen. Here, it’s all about men. Egypt is still in the antediluvian mode of blaming women for being attacked, as if they bring it on themselves.
Social scientists say that rape is not a matter of sex, it’s a matter of power. Here, it’s both, and more.
Egypt is described as a “conservative” and “Islamic” society. That means extramarital sex is forbidden. And while it might be nominally forbidden in Western societies, in Egypt there is none of the winking and smiling about it that we know so well. Here, it’s actually forbidden. Women are murdered on mere suspicion of affairs. Men must wait until marriage, sometimes until their thirties or later, because they can’t get married until they can support a wife.
So sexual repression and frustration spill over.
The same rules have been enforced for more than one thousand years. What’s different now is the surrounding environment. Sex is everywhere.
The simple satellite TV package at my Cairo apartment didn’t include ESPN, but it did have more than five hundred channels. There were some with Islamic preaching, but many more with Western and Western-style movies and programming. There’s an attempt to excise even the mildest of the steamy parts. Movies have innumerable jump cuts from before to after a kiss, and bedroom scenes are cut to the extent that if you don’t know the movie plots ahead of time, they can all seem like “What Just Happened?”
Local commercials include the usual sexual elements, but if there is a scene of a man and woman touching, it often includes a shot of the woman’s hand sporting a wedding ring. The woman’s, not the man’s.
If the object is to remove temptation and suggestion from the screen, it obviously doesn’t, can’t, work. The clear message is that sex is a part of life, but the society doesn’t allow it.
Such distortions can lead to hatred and violence, groping, attacking and rape. The causes are male sexual frustration and powerlessness. Every woman here has suffered from it.
What’s new is that now women are complaining. Not all, probably not most, but some. It’s because women played a leading role in the popular revolution that ousted Mubarak, demonstrating shoulder to shoulder with men. As protests erupted against the Islamist regime that replaced him, that was the case again.
But the cold, hard truth is that despite the mixed demonstrations, the underlying social norms of allowing attacks on women as a matter of routine never changed.
Tahrir Square became the focus of the worst abuse because of an added element: cynical power politics.
Dozens of women have come forward with chilling stories about being surrounded, stripped and abused by gangs of men at the square. It began during the eighteen-day revolt in 2011. The most famous case was the sexual assault on CBS-TV reporter Lara Logan. Her frank report energized other women to speak out.
Even so, it got worse, even systematic. Groups organized to roam the square and protect women against sexual assault. Twitter and Facebook groups were set up as early warning systems, and a website tracked reports of sexual assault in real time with a map.
There were also instances of men forming rings around groups of women to protect them during demonstrations, but then some men would break away and attack the women.
It was clear that many of the worst attacks were orchestrated from above to frighten women away from the square and away from involvement in protest activity. Exactly what that “above” is remains uncertain, because there have been no credible investigations. Suspects include the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamist elements, the police and lingering pro-Mubarak forces.
Whoever they were, they were just tapping into and taking advantage of the underlying issue – sexual harassment and assault as a societal norm. It is everywhere.
One street I walked down at midnight between my office and my apartment is not well lit. One night I was about thirty feet behind two women. I saw a car drive past them and heard the driver holler something. One of the women turned and shouted angrily at the driver as he sped away. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what had happened.
A few days later, there was a similar setup – two young women walking in front of me. I figured maybe this time I could help out. Though I no longer look like a linebacker, the presence of any male can be a deterrent. So I stayed about six feet behind the women, close enough to be noticed but not close enough to intrude, I thought.
One of the women turned and looked at me with a worried frown. I smiled. A minute later, she glanced back again, this time not just worried but clearly frightened.
“It’s OK, I’m one of the good guys,” I laughed.
She relaxed, her shoulders loosening, her fists unclenching. She smiled and went back to her conversation with her friend.
Did I help? Probably not. The problem is just too big.
Chapter 33: Israel’s unreported peace plan
Many times over the years, Egypt has tried to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. It’s in Egypt’s interest, removing the stigma of being just one of two Arab nations at peace with Israel, erasing the stain of the 1979 Camp David Accords, when only the first part – an Egypt-Israel peace treaty – was implemented, but the framework for an Israeli-Palestinian accord was not.
In public, at least, Egypt has put most of the blame on Israel, though in private, some Egyptian officials have expressed exasperation with the pesky Palestinians over their incessant squabbling and complaining.
History, too, raises some pertinent questions.
My eighth-grade history teacher put it this way: “Everything depends on where you start your history.”
So where do we start the history of Israel and the Palestinians?
Nov. 29, 1947, when the U.N. voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state? The Jews accepted it. The Arabs rejected it, but despite the war they declared on the Jews, with the stated object of throwing them into the sea, the Jewish state survived while the Arab state was never born. Jordan and Egypt swallowed up its territory. Yet Nov. 29 is the date today’s Palestinians chose to ask the same U.N. to recognize their state. The irony is too bitter.
How about June 1967? That’s when Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Sinai Desert. Its army crossed the cease-fire lines drawn in 1949 at the end of the above-mentioned war. In other words, the “border” of the West Bank, now accepted by practically everyone as a sacred frontier drawn by God and handed down from generation to generation, was in fact just a cease-fire line that held for all of eighteen years of the seven-thousand-year recorded history of the Middle East.
Or maybe July 2000, when Israel’s prime minister offered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a state in more than 90 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, parts of Jerusalem and a corridor through Israel between the West Bank and Gaza – something that has never existed, certainly not within the “holy” pre-1967 “borders.” To the dismay of the host, President Bill Clinton, Arafat turned down the offer, walked out of Camp David and slammed the door. A violent uprising broke out two months later, and six thousand people died, most of them Palestinians.
Certainly Israel has done stupid things, like building settlements in lands it will one day likely evacuate, as it already has in Gaza. Israel has been guilty of acts of cruelty and has elected some bad leaders. None of those are decisive, though the world usually focuses on those aspects.
And all the above is well-known historical fact. So let’s start somewhere that isn’t so well known.
A year of negotiations between high-level teams of Palestinians and Israelis has come to an end. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shows a map to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It delineates a Palestinian state in 93.5 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, ceding Israeli land to make up the 6.5 percent – including that corridor between the two territories – also the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and shared control of the holy sites in the Old City.
Olmert said, “Sign this.” Otherwise he would not give Abbas the map, knowing from bitter experience that any proposal handed to the Palestinians simply becomes the starting point of the next round of demands. This was Israel’s final offer. Abbas knew that.
So Abbas emulated his predecessor, turned around, left the room and never met Olmert again. The chance was lost for good within a month, when Israel invaded Gaza to try to put a stop to incessant rocket attacks.
Olmert’s offer of a Palestinian state in the equivalent of all of the West Bank, Gaza and significant parts of Jerusalem was never properly reported at the time. Olmert didn’t make it public then, apparently because it did not result in an agreement, and local media did not disclose it.
The Israelis didn’t have to make it public. The Palestinians did.
On March 27, 2009, the chief Palestinian negotiator, my old friend Saeb Erekat, a fellow night owl who was always ready with a comment on current events at 2 a.m., went on Al-Jazeera satellite TV and spelled it out. He said then that Abbas “could have accepted a proposal that talked about Jerusalem and almost 100 percent of the West Bank.”
Then he quoted the response Abbas gave:
“ ‘I am not in a marketplace or a bazaar. I came to demarcate the borders of Palestine – the June 4, 1967, borders – without detracting a single inch, and without detracting a single stone from Jerusalem, or from the holy Christian and Muslim places.’ This is why the Palestinian negotiators did not sign…”
No one else seemed to notice it at the time, even though Erekat said this in Arabic on television, and he repeated his words a few days later at a public gathering in Hebron. I spotted the translation of his Al-Jazeera interview on MEMRI and sounded the major-breaking-news alarm, but the bureau chief at The Associated Press in Jerusalem, where I worked at the time, along with the chief West Bank correspondent, determined that it was not newsworthy and banned me from writing about it.
I will not speculate about their motives. Suffice it to say that later, when the official appointed by Abbas to investigate Palestinian corruption resigned his post in disgust for lack of backing from Abbas, took fourteen boxes of incriminating documents with him and offered the story to the AP – he was turned down. When Israel’s Channel 10 TV broke the story, the AP played it down, covering it only grudgingly and putting the emphasis on sexual misconduct by a Palestinian official instead of the first clear evidence of where those billions of dollars and euros of foreign aid to the Palestinians actually went.
As for me, instead of resigning over these and other journalistic debacles, which I considered, I engineered my transfer to Cairo.
The decision not to report on the 2008 peace plan was a critical mistake in judgment. Had it been made public, had leaders, diplomats and activists become aware of it, it could have changed the focus of peace efforts from knee-jerk demands and pressure on Israel to a realistic approach toward the Palestinians.
By then, you see, the Palestinians had painted themselves into a corner.
Chances are the real reason for their timidity in 2008 was the refugees. About 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes by Jewish soldiers during that war that followed Israel’s creation. They were housed in camps along Israel’s borders, in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. They have been kept there by Palestinian and Arab leaders, with the willing and continuing cooperation of the U.N., to be a festering sore, bolstered by the promise that they would one day return to their homes in Israel. After four generations, Palestinians claim their numbers have reached about seven million, and all are considered refugees from Palestine. All have been promised the right to return “home.”
The figure of seven million is completely ridiculous, of course. I have failed to find another population that has increased tenfold by birth in the space of sixty years. It means that several million people are fraudulently getting assistance from UNRWA, the U.N. agency set up to aid the refugees but instead works actively to perpetuate the refugee problem and reinforce blame and hatred of Israel.
This exploding population myth has made it even harder for the Palestinians to settle the conflict and live quietly in a new state.
Arafat and now Abbas said they want a state in the West Bank and Gaza. Pulling these two threads together, it means they want a Palestinian state, and they also want most of their people to go live in someone else’s state. For sure there are winks and nods in the direction of some sort of other arrangement, but no Palestinian leader has ever told his people, “Sorry, you will not be going back to that village that is now under the runway of Israel’s international airport; you will be fortunate to live instead in a free Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.” If Arafat couldn’t do it, no one can.
There have been sporadic reports about this episode over the years. Some blame Abbas for turning down the 2008 proposal, some say Abbas wanted more of the West Bank and others note that Abbas showed some willingness to compromise over refugees. Quibbling over the percentages, when the total is 100 percent and the offer includes that corridor, is not serious negotiating. And on the refugees – Abbas has made similar hints in public, and then quickly retracted them when confronted by his peers. And blaming Olmert for resigning is a copout – Israel’s internal politics are not his problem.
It typically takes the Palestinians at least a year to come up with an alternative form of history to explain why they passed on peace. In 2001, it was something like, “Barak wasn’t polite.” Really. I’m still waiting for a narrative to excuse their passing up on a state of their own for a second time seven years later.
The ignored 2008 plan is always relevant, because Israel is constantly battered for “intransigence.” The facts above show otherwise.
The downward slope into insoluble stalemate, despair and violence started in July 2000 and got its last fatal push in November 2008. Between those two dates, Israel withdrew from Gaza. Palestinians, tired of the corruption and nepotism of the party headed by Abbas, voted for Hamas, and when Abbas refused to yield to the verdict of his own people, Hamas pitched his forces out of Gaza.
That was two years after Israel pulled out of Gaza. The Palestinians had a chance for independence and glory. Instead they chose rockets and war.
And so we arrive at today. Negotiations are pointless. An understanding of the background will help us all realize that the peace process reached its logical conclusion, and it did not produce peace. Twice.
An understanding of where this all comes from, and especially the sorry events of November 2008, gives an entirely new perspective to the problem.
Because everything depends on where you start your history.
In the just-published second edition of “Broken Spring,” veteran Middle East Correspondent Mark Lavie examines the region from the inside, starting with a new chapter about why it’s impossible to get accurate news reporting from Gaza or anywhere else. Combining his four decades in the region with his two years living in Cairo at the height of Arab Spring turmoil, he describes Egyptian society and Mideast realities in short, easy to digest chapters that explain why the West keeps getting everything wrong, why the Israel-Palestinian conflict isn’t what we think it is, and why the famous Jewish community of Egypt is dying out – and what life is like for the only American-Israeli Orthodox Jewish reporter in country.
MARK LAVIE is a veteran foreign correspondent who worked for The Associated Press for 15 years, writing and editing for the print wire and broadcasting for AP’s 850 radio stations. His last posting was Cairo, where he witnessed the dramatic events of Arab Spring. Mark has been covering the Middle East since he moved to Israel in 1972. Most of his work has been in radio news as Middle East correspondent for radio networks including NPR, NBC, Mutual and CBC (Canada). He won the New York Overseas Press Club’s Lowell Thomas Award for “Best radio interpretation of foreign affairs” in 1994. Born and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Mark graduated from Indiana University with a degree in political science in 1969.
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