A warning: This episode contains descriptions of sexual violence and assault.
In the summer of 2020, a 22-year-old Egyptian woman made the difficult decision to publicly call out her harasser on social media. In a moment of rage, she picked up her phone and typed out a post that would end up travelling much further than she expected – far beyond her social circle. Over the next few weeks, in a whirlwind of Tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram stories, it became clear that she wasn’t the only person this man had assaulted: over 50 other women stepped forward with a laundry list of accusations against him.
It was the first step towards a major reckoning for Egypt; one that inspired big changes in how the country – and the law – deals with sexual assault cases. But for the activists driving that change, it would turn out to be exhausting, and even dangerous.
This week, the first in a two-part series: the rise and fall of Egypt’s #MeToo movement.
This episode was written and produced by Nadeen Shaker and Zeina Dowidar, with editing by Dana Ballout and Alex Atack. Fact checking by Deena Sabry and sound design and mixing by Paul Alouf.
Special thanks to everyone who made this story happen: Sabah Khodir, Noor Gohary, Nadine AbdelHamid, Farah Desouky, Zeina Amr, and Nadine Enan.
Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $2 a month.
Note: our transcripts are made with a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may not reflect the audio with 100% accuracy.
DANA BALLOUT: Before we start, a little disclaimer: this episode is very personal to us and while working on it, we ourselves were disturbed by some of the content we came across, content which contains language and descriptions of sexual violence and asssault. If you’re triggered by this, I would skip this one.
On June 28, 2020, a young woman, in a moment of rage, picks up her phone and starts typing. ‘To all my dear friends,’ she writes on Instagram and Facebook, ‘the following is a PSA that I feel should be addressed immediately. This man, Ahmed Bassam Zaki, is a sexual predator.’
NADINE ABDELHAMID: And you need to be careful, be wary of this person. And to basically stay clear of him. If you have had any instances with him, you can always come and talk to me. My door is open.
DANA BALLOUT: Next to her writing, she attached a photo of a young guy. He was wearing a button-up clean-white shirt and black blazer, his head is tipped back a bit with a faint smile across his face. This picture is from his graduation day so he was wearing a graduation cap.
NADINE ABDELHAMID: The pure intention of this post was for me to warn other girls that this is the type of person that this is because it is not getting out.
DANA BALLOUT: This young girl was determined to post what she’d drafted – a friend who was there to support her told her to take a breath, and to really think of what she was about to do.
NADINE ABDELHAMID: And he warned me of the backlash. He warned me that this was gonna blow up, that this was gonna, I did not believe him for a second. Sure enough, it did [laughs]. Sure enough, it did. And it’s still very surreal to me. It’s very surreal, everything that’s happened.
DANA BALLOUT: And what happened was that the moment the post went up, Egypt’s MeToo movement was born. Because, not long after that, so many women would also come forward and say: Me Too.
DANA BALLOUT: And for the rest of that summer – the summer of 2020 – Egypt would experience one of the greatest cultural reckonings the country had ever seen.
Today, the story of the rise and fall of Egypt’s MeToo movement, how it actually happened, and the women leading the charge. We’re going to be telling this story in two parts. Today, producers Nadeen Shaker and Zeina Dowidar will take us on a journey they were both personally experienced and were affected by. A journey of euphoria and another of pain.
I’m Dana Ballout and this is Kerning Cultures. Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, and the spaces in between.
DANA BALLOUT: Chapter 1: The Reckoning.
NADINE ABDELHAMID: Hi, my name is Nadine AbdelHamid. I was the whistleblower for the Ahmed Bassam Zaki case. I’m 23 years old.
NADEEN SHAKER: It was months before I could get Nadine AbdelHamid to talk to me.
DANA BALLOUT: This is our producer, Nadeen Shaker.
NADEEN SHAKER: She was really hesitant at first. Eighteen months had passed since she’s outed her harasser, Ahmed Bassam Zaki, who we’ll sometimes refer to by his initials: ABZ. In those 18 months, a lot had changed for Nadine, and she was naturally apprehensive about journalists and interviews. And then, finally she texts me one day and tells me she is ready to talk.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: We asked her to start from the top, in June of 2020.
DANA BALLOUT: This is producer, Zeina Dowidar.
NADINE ABDELHAMID: I had received a message.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: It was from someone she didn’t know. As soon as she read the message, an anxious pit opened up in her stomach.
NADINE ABDELHAMID: The text was like very provocative and I didn’t know who it was, and a couple of days later I found out that it was Ahmed Bassem Zaki that sent me that message. And I had been harassed and blackmailed by this person four years ago.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Ahmed Bassan Zaki was the last person she wanted to be contacted by. She and him met in 2016, in the summer before college.
NADEEN SHAKER: At the time, they were both only 18.
NADINE ABDELHAMID: An acquaintance of mine told me that she has a friend who’s trying to expand their circle and whatnot. So they wanted to know if you guys want to talk. Sure. Why not? And so we started talking.
NADEEN SHAKER: So Nadine tells Zeina and I that they talked for a bit that summer but that was basically it. Then someone warned her to stay away from him, because he had a bad reputation for mistreating girls at school, so she tried to cut him off but he continued to pursue and stalk her – at one point he even threated to kill himself if she didn’t stay with him.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: It was terrible. And he didn’t leave it at that. He would disappear and suddenly pop up again in her life, with a ping, a text message to hang out, to drink champagne or smoke weed. She’d decline or ghost him and eventually she thought he’d forgotten all about her until this one day.
NADINE ABDELHAMID: I got to school in February 2017. And he would follow me everywhere. Like on a random school day, I’d be walking out of the library and he would be following me and tormenting me by, like, saying things like out loud in public that were very inappropriate. And to a point where he literally gave me so many panic attacks, like, I broke down crying so many times because of this person. I’d felt so unsafe because of this person.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: So that same guy who gave her panic attacks at university managed to find a way to text her again almost four years later. She was a boiling pot of emotions, of fury and dread. And later that night, she drafted that Facebook post.
NADEEN SHAKER: In cases where victims had spoken up before, they were blamed, or worse, not believed and publicly shamed.
NADEEN SHAKER: And for Nadine, all that stuff was playing in the back of her head.
NADINE ABDELHAMID: But in the end I was like, I can’t not – like I – it’s kind of lame of me to say, but the only thing that was going through my head was a Captain America quote, which was basically: when the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth and tell the world: No, you move. And for me, that really resonated for those few minutes. And I was like, enough, enough, even if I’m the only person saying anything, even if whatever happens, I’m still going to talk about this. I didn’t want girls to feel as stupid and ashamed as I felt when I was 18, because of this person. I didn’t want them to go through the shame that I did, the feeling like it was my fault. And then yeah, we posted it.
NADEEN SHAKER: But instead of blame and backlash, Nadine received messages of support from so many people, people who knew people hurt by ABZ, and from absolute strangers.
NADINE ABDELHAMID: And within like a couple of hours already 20 people texted me and they were like, ‘yeah, the same thing happened with someone I knew’. And then more and more like people were telling me: it happened with me; it happened with my friend; it happened with like five of my friends.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: The post traveled far beyond the few people in Nadine’s circle. Messages came pouring in – countless other girls and women saying they had also been harassed by Ahmed Bassam Zaki, and sharing text messages and voice notes that other accounts would share and make public.
NADEEN SHAKER: Eventually, the entire country would be talking about ABZ, sharing and resharing his secret conversations and exposing his wildest sexual violations and heinous offenses, which would eventually lead to a lawsuit against him. A rare victory that would put a serial predator behind bars.
NADINE ABDELHAMID: It was surreal is definitely the word that comes to mind. It’s still surreal to this day. It’s still hard to believe till this day.
NADEEN SHAKER: When Nadine made that post on June 28th, it immediately caught the eye of a few people. One of them was Sabah Khodir.
SABAH KHODIR: Two days before the movement I was given homework actually by my therapist where the homework was to allow myself to feel outraged without reacting to it. I failed that homework, like, phenomenally.
NADEEN SHAKER: Sabah was hitting a slump in her life. She had just moved from Egypt to the US, fleeing her own harasser.
SABAH KHODIR: So I guess my harshest experience is when it happened with someone I trusted a lot in my life and you know one night he had asked me for help and asked me if he could come over to speak cause he was kind of like a mess. And I, of course, definitely, invited him to come and then yeah, an assault happened that night and that was, I think, the final straw for me. And that’s why I left Egypt.
NADEEN SHAKER: She left behind her entire life in Egypt, one where she was just becoming recognized as a writer and advocate for women’s rights.
NADEEN SHAKER: Unfortunately, most sexual harassment and assault globally happens by people we know, in our circles.
SABAH KHODIR: Journaling is one of my cathartic things and I couldn’t even write and writing is what I’ve done my whole life since I was five. And I couldn’t write anything. I just remember, like I would just start stabbing the notebook. I was angry all the time. And so I was sitting online and I got a message from a girl and it was of a Facebook post of a whistleblower and a victim of Ahmed Bassam Zaki.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: It was Nadine’s Facebook post.
SABAH KHODIR: What the girl did was really brave because in some way or another, she just called someone out.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: At this point, Nadine and Sabah had never talked before, but that day, they got on a call, and Nadine opened up to her about ABZ’s harassment.
SABAH KHODIR: And I got really, really mad and I just took his picture. At the time, I think I had like a few thousand followers, maybe 8,000. And I just took his picture and I circled his face and I wrote rapist on it.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Sabah had never met ABZ, but hearing about Nadine’s experience made her so angry, she felt like she had to do something.
SABAH KHODIR: And I just wrote on it, this young man, his name is Ahmed Bassam Zaki and I wanted to call him out in a bigger platform or like a bigger way, because I didn’t want him to be shamed only in front of his own direct community.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Sabah’s post went viral. I remember that photo well. She had circled his face with those Instagram doodle tools, in orange and red.
NADEEN SHAKER: You could tell the scribbly circles were made in anger. She captioned the photo with rapist, mota7aresh in Arabic.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: And that photo was shared everywhere – on Instagram, on Twitter, in friend groups on Messenger, and even my family WhatsApp group.
SABAH KHODIR: And I was really surprised to find out the next morning that his face was everywhere: on the news, my phone was blowing up, I had people calling me from all over the country, trying to get me to speak with them.
NADEEN SHAKER: Sabah suddenly became the unofficial spokesperson for the movement, talking to journalists and making television appearances, basically trying to push public opinion on the ABZ case.
NADEEN SHAKER: And it was working…
NADINE ABDELHAMID: I was so surprised when Amr Adib was talking about it.
NADEEN SHAKER: Amr Adib is one of the most famous Egyptian media personalities. His nightly TV show is watched across the country.
NADINE ABDELHAMID: I was like there is no way that this is on the news. Bassem Youssef talking about it from the States…
NADINE ABDELHAMID: All these different people. And so it’s just, it was word of mouth. It was word of mouth. It was the posts. It was everyone trying to get justice for these girls, for all the survivors.
SABAH KHODIR: At the time, most of the messages that were coming my way were about Bassem Zaki. It wasn’t just me who was receiving these messages. At that time, we had more than one person with different accounts, also receiving message, also trying to gather information on him.
NADEEN SHAKER:And the one account that would rise to fame is Assault Police. Assault Police started gathering testimonies of women willing to share their assault incidents with ABZ and posted some of them.
We are going to play one of those voice notes that ABZ shared with a woman to help put you in our shoes as we experienced those events. It is extremely graphic and although we’re beeping some words, this is a strong trigger warning. If you don’t want to hear it, skip ahead 30 seconds.
[ABZ voice note]
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Assault Police got super popular. Everyone was following it. The Instagram page was created by Nadeen Ashraf, a university student, in a moment of rage over a deleted post outing ABZ at her own school.
Even though she was running the page anonymously, Assault Police shot up to over 70,000 Instagram followers in a week. And later on, Nadeen would eventually become an international household name for starting and growing the MeToo movement in Egypt, making it to the pages of the New York Times and other international outlets.
NADEEN SHAKER: Zeina and I tried to get in touch with Nadeen Ashraf from Assault Police for an interview several times during our reporting. Unfortunately, we never heard back.
Assault Police posted so many appalling accounts – one that gave me nightmares was a rape incident in a gym in which ABZ paid a security guard to walk away and turn a blind eye.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: It was a scary time. I remember frantically texting my female friends – had he ever spoken to you? Had he ever harassed you? The screenshots and voice notes that were shared online and in the news haunted me. They still do.
DANA BALLOUT: Chapter 2: The Arrest.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: On July 4th, 2020, a week after Nadine sat down and wrote her post outing ABZ as a harasser, he was arrested.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: According to the Public Prosecutor, Ahmed Bassam Zaki was now facing charges of quote – “attempting to have sex with two girls without their consent and indecently assaulting another girl by force, one of which was a minor, as well as threatening and blackmailing other women into sexual intercourse”. End quote.
NADEEN SHAKER: The day Ahmed Bassam Zaki was arrested, the NCW, which is the National Council for Women, said that their hotline did not stop ringing and that around 400 more cases of sexual assault were reported. Around the same time, women across social media started speaking up, boldly and like never before sharing their harassment and assault stories. Social media was literally blowing up.
[MULTIPLE VOICES – TESTIMONIES OF ASSAULT]
NADEEN SHAKER: Suddenly, we were all reckoning with our own stories, supporting ourselves and our friends as we unearth and bring to light years of harassment and assault that were either swept under a rug or forced to hide in the deep closets of our minds.
SABAH KHODIR: And women started to become extremely powerful because they were able to take back the space that was taken from them. The space of: I can now walk in the street. I’m allowed to walk here by the way, I don’t have to walk with my head down. And then women started recording the men that were harassing them, outing them publicly, taking them to police stations. And every time I think about it I get really emotional because I lived to see something that was so phenomenal and so astronomical. We were so lucky to experience that change.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Finally, something had snapped and women were claiming back a fight we had lost many times over. We took back public spaces that were occupied from us, and reclaimed our bodies that were constantly threatened and violated. We felt ready to take down a ruthless phenomenon called sexual harrassment that somehow had become endemic to an entire culture.
NADEEN SHAKER: But this moment – as overwhelming and monumental as it felt – wasn’t the game-changer. The fight was nowhere near over. Because, although ABZ was arrested, it wasn’t enough to prosecute him. Now, activists and others in the movement would need to build the case and start gathering legal evidence against ABZ. It was the only way to actually take him to court and sentence him.
DANA BALLOUT: Chapter 3: The Trial.
SABAH KHODIR: We had to all collaborate at that time to put information together, to try to check resources.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Activists, lawyers, survivors, and anyone who wanted to help worked together to gather complaints against ABZ.
SABAH KHODIR: We had incredible women, people who had their own businesses then offer services. So psychiatrists were offering their services for free. Very, very strong and powerful women were creating groups and networks where we can somehow create shelters for any of the women who are dealing with their parents refusing to let them go forward and they want to go forward no matter what.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: It was the first time something like this was happening and they were sort of treading in the dark.
SABAH KHODIR: We were all doing so much research. We would gather evidence. I’d sit with the girls on the phone for hours going through old conversations, trying to find any source of evidence, voice notes of threats and voice notes of any type of him kind of exuding any type of violence; him commenting on someone’s body disrespectfully.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: When you were talking right now about all the different things you’d had to do and how a group of you were alone in the process, I was thinking, how did it feel to wear different hats on – like, lawyer hat is on, and then psychologist hat is on, and then therapist hat and counseling to help the women that are coming into your inbox but also activists and posting but also speaking and doing interviews. How was it for you personally having to take on all these different things at once without the institutional support?
SABAH KHODIR: Yeah. Well well there’s very little sleep. I hardly slept and I hardly ate. And I was driven 24/7 with a lot of passion for this. So I would allow myself to break down and cry when I needed to and get up and do it because nothing else is more important than this.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: On July 12th, 2020, Assault Police came out with another post. They said they gathered over 150 sexual harrassment testimonies, but they needed more if they were going to actually prosecute Ahmed Bassam Zaki. ‘You will remain anonymous to the public, just come forward’, the post read.
NADINE ABDELHAMID: A lot of people did not come forward about what they’d experienced with him. So the 150 posts that Shady, Sabah and Nadeen made, those were just the people that came forward to talk about it. And even fewer came to actually take action.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Only 6 girls eventually came forward to press charges.
NADEEN SHAKER: We need to take a step back and remember; women rarely file complaints of sexual harrassment globally – but especially in Egypt and the Arab world.
Because if and when they do, the outcome is nothing short of humiliating and scary. They run the risk of exposing themselves to intense social stigma and a legal system ill-equipped to deal with these types of cases. Egypt’s morality or debauchary laws make it easier for police to question women in detail about their sexual history, and how they live their lives, and essentially turn the case against them.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: In fact, the first time a sexual harrasment law was passed in Egypt was in 2014. And in 2021, sexual harrasment went from being tried as a misdemeanor to a felony.
NOOR EL GOHARY: And before that, we didn’t have a sexual harassment law.
NADEEN SHAKER: This is Noor Gohary, a lawyer who is involved in many of these cases.
NOOR EL GOHARY: And therefore, we only had the incitement of debauchery, or sexual assault. So then you could only either prove this person is inciting debauchery or this person sexually assaulted me and sexual assault means he has to touch you. The sexual assault and rape laws have not been changed for years. And I think maybe a hundred years.
NADEEN SHAKER: Wow, a hundred years, okay! Does that mean they are very outdated?
NOOR EL GOHARY: Yeah, maybe.
NADEEN SHAKER: Noor says the laws were first introduced in the 1937 penal code, 85 years ago. Apart from the fact that there were hardly any laws to protect against assault, the cultural and social stigma is far more daunting. Victim blaming is common. When women do come out and say they were assaulted, they’re almost always shamed for what they were wearing or doing during the time of their attack. Their side of the story gets brought into question.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: But in a case that was as widely watched as ABZ’s, the other major problem was that there weren’t any laws in place to shield the identities of the survivors from being leaked to the press or being shared with the public. But in the midst of the movement, something incredible happened – a new law was approved to protect victim’s anonymity when they legally came forward to report assault.
NOOR EL GOHARY: The minister of justice came up with the wording of this law. And what it did was that it banned the publication of a victims’ names as in sexual assault cases and sexual harassment cases and rape. The investigator has the names in a separate file, and it can only be shared with the defense team and the judge.
NADEEN SHAKER: But even still, Noor told us that when the ABZ judgment was published, the victim’s names’ were in it.
NOOR EL GOHARY: When I received it, I had to carve out their names myself.
NADEEN SHAKER: So the law was made for this case but it wasn’t implemented?
NOOR EL GOHARY: It wasn’t posted from the official Facebook pages, et cetera, their weren’t their names weren’t mentioned. However, in the case docket they were. And in the news media outlets, which were maybe not informed about the law, they posted about it. So I’ve made official complaints. I’m not sure how they ended, but when I saw this, of course I reported it.
NADEEN SHAKER: When the law was passed, Nadine was the first survivor to break the legal silence and press charges.
NADEEN SHAKER: Your family was supportive of this?
NADINE ABDELHAMID: They were so supportive. My dad cried and he’s not a crier. My dad cried and he was like, ‘I’m very proud of you. And it is your duty to these girls to continue and to persist’, which I’m very grateful for because most parents don’t do that. Most parents don’t do that. My mom was terrified. My mom, she was worried that he was going to send people to hurt me.
NADEEN SHAKER: And when she went to the prosecutor’s office to actually file the complaint, it was a brutal experience.
NADINE ABDELHAMID: It was basically from like 11 ‘til 5 or 6 of me repeating my story over and over and over again. And to the point where I was so anxious that as soon as I left, I fainted right there and then. Like the mental process of going through what happened to you and your traumas over and over and over again, like five times, it isn’t easy.
And right after that, my lawyers and my therapist advised me to take a break. Honestly, one of the hardest parts was for me to just wait, and I was scared. I had no idea what was happening. I didn’t know what my rights were. I didn’t know what laws were gonna protect me and which weren’t, you know? And I was so anxious to the point where like, I went to the supermarket with my family once and I was a hundred percent sure I saw him. And I broke down crying, I was so terrified. And as soon as I blinked, it was a completely different person.
NADEEN SHAKER: But Nadine’s struggle was not in vain. We’ll tell you what happened – right after the break.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: For four months, Nadine had been waiting to hear back anything – anything at all – about her case.
NADINE ABDELHAMID: Yeah, so I came back to Cairo and I waited and waited and waited and waited. And the only time I actually heard something was six months later, around New Year’s when I was told that my case won, and we sentenced him to three years and I broke down crying.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: That December – specifically, December the 29th, 2020, only a few days before the New Year – Ahmed Bassam Zaki was sentenced to three years in prison for sexually harassing two women using social media. The court which tried him was specialized in cyber crimes, and found ABZ guilty of sending pornographic photographs and texts to the women’s phones, and extorting them for sexual favors.
NADEEN SHAKER: Zeina and I are Egyptian ourselves, so we celebrated, with everyone else.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: I think every single woman who had ever been harassed or assaulted in Egypt…
NADEEN SHAKER: Every woman who’s had someone slide into her DMs with inappropriate and unwanted messages…
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Every woman who’s ever had to pretend not to hear catcalls while walking down the streets to try and not to provoke them any further…
NADEEN SHAKER: Every woman who’s had to change her clothing before going out to avoid unwanted attention…
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Who’s pretended to be on the phone while walking alone…
NADEEN SHAKER: Who’s pretended to have a boyfriend…
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Or a brother…
NADEEN SHAKER: Or a father nearby to stop someone from coming on to them…
ZEINA DOWIDAR: We all celebrated, and we all cried.
NADEEN SHAKER: Finally, someone had seen justice.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: In April of 2021, ABZ was further found guilty of assault and blackmail of three underage girls, and received an additional eight years in prison. But that victory in December meant even more to us later on, because there’s something else we haven’t told you about.
Thousands of women were still coming out against their assaulters and harassers. Instagram pages like Assault Police and Cat Calls of Cairo were blowing up, and they were posting dozens of testimonies every single day.
And while some rapists like ABZ faced justice, other cases took particularly nasty turns – turns that shed light on the societal backlash Nadine was worried about all along,
NADEEN SHAKER: On July 26th, the Assault Police Instagram Page had broken another case; a rumour of a gang rape in the Fairmont Hotel on the Nile a few years earlier. The post asked for leads about that terrifying night… a night that would become known in the media as the Fairmont Case.
SABAH KHODIR: In the face of horror, that was when we realized that we had touched upon something in a different case, that was way more complicated and corrupt than, than we had ever imagined. And so at that point it was every man for themselves. It was a war, it was a legitimate war. And it became very political very quickly.
DANA BALLOUT: Next week on Kerning Cultures, the last chapter of this story, part 2: the aftermath: the impact of the Fairmont rape case on the Me Too movement, and the women at the center of it all.
This episode was produced and written by Nadeen Shaker and Zeina Dowidar, and edited by Dana Ballout and Alex Atack. Fact checking by Deena Sabry, and sound design and mixing by Paul Alouf. Bella Ibrahim is our marketing manager.
NADEEN SHAKER: A big and humble thanks to everyone who made this story happen: Sabah Khodir, Noor Gohary, Nadine AbdelHamid, Farah Desouky and Zeina Amr, and Nadine Enan.