A warning: This episode contains descriptions of sexual violence and assault.
As Egyptian women celebrated the arrest of serial predator and rapist Ahmed Bassam Zaki in the summer of 2020, another case came to light: An alleged gang rape in the upscale Fairmont Hotel. If the men involved were convicted, this case would be another big success for the #MeToo movement in Egypt. But instead, it took nasty turns; evidence would be buried, case witnesses would be arrested and campaigners for the victim would face threats and intimidation. Many began to ask: was this the end of the #MeToo movement in Egypt?
This week, the second in a two-part series: the rise and fall of #MeToo in Egypt.
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 Mohamad Khreizat and 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 $1 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: This episode is part two of our personal deep dive into the summer that ended up monumentally changing the culture around sexual harsment in Egypt. If you haven’t listened to the first episode, I would go do that now.
And before we start, a little disclaimer and trigger warning: this episode contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence and rape thoughout. If you don’t want to hear that stuff, I would skip this episode.
At the end of the summer of 2020, Egyptian women were celebrating a moment of euphoria, victory and relief. Ahmed Bassam Zaki, also known as ABZ, a serial rapist and harasser, had been arrested. He would eventually be handed an 11-year prison sentence. We told this story in depth in Part 1.
Throughout his case, Instagram pages were sharing hundreds of other testimonies harassment and rape from women across the country. Sometime in late July, the Instagram page Assault Police – which was the page that triggered the MeToo movement in Egypt – exposed another incident that would change everything for a second time in the country. The case was called the Fairmont case.
SABAH KHODIR: The Fairmont case was one of the most notorious cases at the time, and it becomes so popular and it had become so wildly known that, in my eyes, if Egypt drops the ball on this, we completely 100% lose face in front of the entire world.
DANA BALLOUT: This is Sabah Khodir, an Egyptian activist. The event we are discussing is said to have happened eight years ago, in 2014, at the Fairmont – an upscale hotel overlooking the Nile in the heart of downtown Cairo.
SABAH KHODIR: A young girl, 17 – she had just turned 18 years old – she went to the Fairmont hotel. She was invited by a friend to come to an after party. Her friend had then planned with six men to drug her and rape her on camera and they would tape it. And then they would send it to about 50 men. And the girl then, after her rape, would wake up the next morning. They had signed their names all over her backside. They drew extremely awful horrific pictures all over her. They just humiliated her.
DANA BALLOUT: During this summer of 2020 though, when ABZ had been arrested and everything felt like it was finally going to change in Egypt for the better, the alleged victim in the Fairmont case filed a complaint to the National Council for Women. According to Vice podcast Strongman, the victim, having found out she was pregnant and had no choice but to get an abortion, only reported the crime 5 years later, in 2019, after struggling with years of trauma.
As with the ABZ case, Sabah, who you’ve heard a lot of in the part 1 of this story, found herself helping build this case by talking to anyone who could find witnesses – or the video that the men had allegedly filmed that night. At this point, the video seemingly disappeared and nobody who had a copy would come forward.
SABAH KHODIR: There was an email chain of 50 men who have that video.
DANA BALLOUT: But none of these men stepped forward. Nor would anyone give up the video. I haven’t seen the video, no one on this team has seen the video.
SABAH KHODIR: But then I’ll never forget somebody – a girl, I won’t say her name – that she has videos of the rape – of several rapes that they’ve done. And I’ve begged more than once.
DANA BALLOUT: She begged the girl for her permission to submit the video as evidence.
SABAH KHODIR: And when I asked her, she said nothing you’re going to do is going to change the fact that they’re going to get away with it. And at the end, every single person who helps is going to suffer. And everyone who has helped is either going to be in prison or is going to get tortured or is going to get killed. And she said, ‘Sabah, these are not people that you can win against’. And then she said, ‘and I don’t want to speak to you again. I hope you take my warning sincerely’. And, and that was it. That was the last time we spoke. And she was not lying.
DANA BALLOUT: This week on Kerning Cultures: after a summer of hope, doubt and darkness loom over the Me Too movement in Egypt.
DANA BALLOUT: The final chapter: the aftermath. Producers Nadeen Shaker and Zeina Dowidar take it from here. Here’s Zeina.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: The first time Assault Police posted about the Fairmont Case on their Instagram was on July 26th, 2020. It was a passionate plea asking for leads. Nadeen Ashraf, the woman who ran the page, didn’t include all the info she had about the Fairmont case – she was just asking for witnesses or leads.
NADEEN SHAKER: And the post, quote – “These men think they’re so powerful that they filmed multiple rapes with their faces on video, because they knew they could get away with it. They send these videos to friends as trophies”, end quote. One of the key supporters and activists of this case, Nadine Enan, saw that post on Assault Police’s page.
NADINE ENAN: I saw the picture of Fairmont. They’re like a disgusting crime happened here with the video. I was like, yeah, this looked like the view from Zamalek.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Zamalek is an island in the middle of the Nile. If you stood on the island, you’d spot the towering Fairmont Hotel across the river. Nadine grew up hearing about the alleged rape at the Fairmont Hotel. In fact, she had mutual acquaintances with the men in the video.
NADINE ENAN: And I remember like the culture there was very – like, they normalize the stuff. So just seeing that view just reminded me of it. I was like, this is why I left these social circles.
NADEEN SHAKER: Overall, nine men were implicated but the six men are said to have performed or helped in the alleged rape. They were from extremely wealthy families. Their fathers, some of the best-known businessmen in the country. We’re naming them because their names and faces are already public. Their names are Amr El Komy, son of a steel magnate, Omar Hafez, and the brothers Amr Hussein and Khaled Mahmoud Ismail. Ahmed Helmy Toulan, son of a famous sports ex-player and coach, is the person who allegedly drugged her. Amr El Sedawy, her friend, is the one who appears to have been filming. His father runs a big pharmacy franchise across the country. They’re all part of the Egyptian social elite. Untouchable.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Nadine was looped into the movement for speaking up against behaviour like that on social media. Before that, she was a copywriter working in marketing. Any chance she got to speak her mind, she would just type it.
NADINE ENAN: Well, I remember when it first broke out and that they all, [speaks in Arabic].
NADEEN SHAKER: The men closed their social media accounts.
NADINE ENAN: I remember sending Ahmed Tolan,, I sent him a ticking clock.
NADEEN SHAKER: Oh my God, you didn’t! [Laughs] Did he see it? Did he see that message?
NADINE ENAN: I have no idea. I don’t know. I sent it to him on Facebook.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Nadine quickly got involved with the activists working on the Fairmont case, campaigning heavily for the arrest of the suspects.
NADINE ENAN: Then I think there was a time when we were thinking Ahmed Bassam Zaki was arrested in a week. What’s taking so fucking long with these people?
ZEINA DOWIDAR: But everyone working on this case quickly realised that it would be very, very different from their experience with ABZ. Despite the evidence and people coming forward as witnesses and others sharing screenshots of the video – but never the video itself – Assault Police took a step back on August 13th, just over two weeks after their first post. Nadeen wrote on the page, saying her top priority is the safety and comfort of all survivors, and she said quote – “we decided to step back and let the authorities take the current case into their own hands to ensure the safety and comfort of survivors with such a sensitive, high profile case.” End quote.
NADEEN SHAKER: Suddenly, people were reporting that the six alleged rapists in the case had fled the country. And in a turn that shocked everyone, Assault Police’s Instagram page was deactivated. Nadeen Ashraf said that she was being threatened by the alleged perpetrators. They knew where her home was, and who her family is. The Instagram page stayed dark for over ten days, until…
NADINE ENAN: They were arrested and we were happy. I remember it also Nadeen Ashraf was suggesting the 24th of August was like a national day of celebration.
NADEEN SHAKER: Two of the men were arrested in Egypt, one at the airport, and three others were extradited from Lebanon.
NADINE ENAN: But then four days later, the witnesses were arrested. And people were freaking out.
NADEEN SHAKER: The witnesses. Those who had come forward to testify against the men. Three of the six of them were taken from their homes like criminals, literally in the middle of the night. One of those witnesses was a woman called Nazli Karim. Here is Sabah again.
SABAH KHODIR: Nazli may have been one of the strongest women I’ve ever met in my life. Nazli’s the ex-partner of one of the infamous alleged rapists. And Nazli was very vocal about the fact that this person will do anything to make sure that she suffers and pays for helping. And she did not want to be part of it.
NADEEN SHAKER: But Sabah was told by the National Council for Women, who was taking on the case, that Nazli would be protected as a witness no matter what happens, and so she convinced Nazli to come forward and testify.
SABAH KHODIR: So she said, I will come forward as a witness because I want to be protected. And Nazli went forward and she gave her testimony and she went home and maybe less than 48 hours later in the middle of the night, witnesses were getting aggressive knocks at their door. And they were being kidnapped by officers and being sent to a deserted area. And they all start being forced to change their testimonies.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Nazli is said to have endured unspeakable things in prison. We tried to reach Nazli for an interview but fearing further backlash, she was hesitant to talk to us. So we’re talking to Sabah who Nazli relayed her story to. Nazli agreed to have Sabah tell her story on her behalf.
SABAH KHODIR: Nazli was taken. She was arrested. She went through a lot. She was bullied, insulted, degraded, harmed, abused. She went through it at all. She would not change her testimony no matter what they did, no matter how much they tried to get her to change her testimony, Nazli wouldn’t do it. And she wouldn’t change her testimony in general because it was the truth. And then they put her in solitary confinement. Nazli was in solitary confinement for – she doesn’t remember because they have all the windows and everything shut out. It was just torturous for her. She spent – she thinks there were five days in solitary confinement.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: According to Human Rights Watch, Nazli was also forced to undergo a virginity test while in detention. The security officers called her names, and provided insufficient food and water.
NADEEN SHAKER: Also, while in prison, Nazli’s mental health deteriorated; she was visited by a psychiatrist a number of times who reported that her condition might lead to self-injury or suicide. And as Nazli struggled, the news cycle was going frantic.
SABAH KHODIR: Almost immediately after Nazi was taken – I think it was may have been a day after Nazli was taken – pictures of Nazli leaked all over the internet. Sexual, graphic photos of Nazli had been released everywhere on the internet. Pictures of nudity, videos of her having intercourse. All of it was leaked throughout the internet and Nazli was in prison at the time, so she actually didn’t know what was going on outside, but in less than I think in 12 hours, every single person in Egypt, I genuinely believe like a hundred million people, had access to her and her private pictures. And as the topic it was, ‘this is the Fairmont victim’.
NADEEN SHAKER: The alleged Fairmont rapists knew that public opinion was against them. These leaked photos and videos were their desperate attempt to flip the narrative, and get the public on their side. And it worked – but only for a while. Nazli became the target of TV talk show hosts, news anchors, and Facebook groups, who were portraying her as the scandalous Fairmont victim.
NADEEN SHAKER: And because the real Fairmont victim’s identity was hidden, no one was there to say Nazli wasn’t the real victim.
SABAH KHODIR: There was a narrative, they were attempting to change that this is what the Fairmont victim does, and they wanted to change public opinion so badly to make sure that this is how everyone would perceive the Fairmont victim. The Fairmont victim at the time, of course, you know, her identity was concealed and it is concealed and we were trying to protect it.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: The Egyptian media continued to circulate leaked personal photos and videos that showed the witnesses in explicit clothing, dancing, and drinking at parties. The articles were framing the party at the Fairmont as a, quote unquote, “group sex party” and that authorities had uncovered “the biggest network of homosexuality.”
SABAH KHODIR: You know, they wanted to show you like these people are, are gay, sex maniacs. And because like, what does Egypt hate more than a rapist? A gay person. And all of this was happening with trying to get Nazli a lawyer and trying to get people inside to see her. And they weren’t allowing us to send her a lawyer in and they weren’t allowing us to send anyone in to check in on her. And it was awful because at the end of the day, she was just a witness.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: But then something incredible happened. That’s after the break.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: As this smear campaign was going on against the Fairmont victim in the media, on Instagram, another story was starting to take shape.
NADINE ENAN: There was a live video that Sabah was making than someone in the comments, she said:
SABAH KHODIR: If we all say we’re a Fairmont victim, let them try to find out who, which one we are…
NADINE ENAN: Let’s just all of us say we are the Fairmont victim.
SABAH KHODIR: Something like that but it was a really smart idea. And then we started that campaign as ‘I’m the Fairmont victim’.
NADINE ENAN: And then people started saying, ‘I’m the Fairmont victim’, ‘I’m the Fairmont victim’. so that it gets flooded. Then, no one knows who the name actually is.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: I remember when this happened. Sabah and other advocates started an Instagram hashtag, called #IAmTheFairmontVictim. Women across the country and abroad were posting selfies of themselves with the hashtag in support of Nazli and the real Fairmont victim.
NADEEN SHAKER: With tens of thousands of posts in support of Nazli and the real Fairmont victim, the smear campaign was effectively foiled. But Nazli was still in prison and her supporters needed to find a way for her story to get international attention. So they started an online campaign for her release and got activists from other countries on board. Soon, the story would go global.
SABAH KHODIR: I literally saw it everywhere, places I never expected, people I never thought I’d hear. I mean, even here in America, I was in a doctor’s lounge, a doctor’s office, and I could hear them talking about it.
NADEEN SHAKER: We’re not sure why she was suddenly released. But On January 6th, 2021, Nazli Karim was finally set free after serving 133 days in detention.
NADINE ENAN: When she got out, I was at work and I danced on the desk. No one was there but I danced on the desk. I was busy kind of like praying for her to like stay strong. I was just like, okay, no matter what you’re going through, you’re going to be fine. This is going to be fine. This can’t happen.
NADEEN SHAKER: But Sabah and Nadine say that her release also exposed some huge cracks in the movement, because some activists would stop campaigning for her release altogether, when they began seeing how big of a risk they were taking for her. If Nazli was being made an example of, then the same could happen to them. This is when fear would finally show its face.
NADINE ENAN: The thing that broke my heart was how everyone became too scared to talk about it anymore. It didn’t show effects right in the very beginning. Like it wasn’t obvious in the very beginning, but eventually it started showing its face, just how scared people were because no one was talking when the witnesses needed it the most, especially Nazli. She came to help, and then when she got bashed in the face for it, people are like, ‘oh I’m sorry’. It’s like, no – we owed her.
SABAH KHODIR: Yeah, I mean, it took a while for things to go bad, but it affected us by – it just, there are a lot of people who started getting scared who removed themselves from campaigning for it all together. They would just tell me like, ‘Sabah this is just one case. Let it go so we can continue doing all these other cases. You’re going to risk everything for one case? And how about all the other ones? Are they not as important as this one?’ And that’s the problem. It was like that comparison was crazy to me. It wasn’t just one case. It’s not. Powerful men being put behind bars for crimes that they have committed sets a really important precedent.
When things become scary, it’s really hard to tell somebody that in the face of like horror, you have to behave in a certain way. But in the face of horror, that was when we realised that we had touched upon something that was way more complicated and corrupt 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.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: It’s easy to forget why these women would want to step back from the case when they seem to have all the legal support they need. But the aggressors, the people they were up against, could make their worlds a very dark and scary place. They were stalked and defamed and in many cases, verbally abused.
NADEEN SHAKER: Activists weren’t spared either. Many, if not all, received death threats and their home addresses were made known to the perpetrators. Sabah’s home in the States was broken into while she was advocating for the Fairmont victim, and she quickly had to move. She had no idea if this was linked to her campaigning, but it shook her up. Unfortunately, there was no end or expectation of how bad the backlash could get.
NADEEN SHAKER: What was the lowest point for you?
NADINE ENAN: Because I know a lot of people were scared, so I was focusing a lot on like not being scared myself and I was trying to like to push for people to not be scared. When that didn’t work, I think that was the lowest point for me. But when I got death threats at the time and I didn’t necessarily feel like there was support, I started actually getting scared and that made me feel like shit.
NADEEN SHAKER: When did that start happening?
NADINE ENAN: March.
NADEEN SHAKER: March delivered some pretty bad news. A court ruling had ordered Ahmed Helmy Toulan and Amr Hussein – two of the alleged rapists in the Fairmont video – to be released on EGP 100,000 bail, which is around $6,500 in dollars. The court also reportedly ordered the release of the other suspects in the case, Amir Zayed and Amr Zakaria, pending investigation.
SABAH KHODIR: After all of this, the men were free to go and now allowed to walk back into Egypt whenever they want.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Eventually in May, the case was closed due to insufficient evidence. The rest of the suspects were released, as well as the witnesses that they had detained alongside Nazli. And just like that, that was it.
SABAH KHODIR: Once it happened, once they were let go, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. I was like, this is not a place for heroes. Egypt is not a place for saving.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Sabah retreated from public campaigning and went off her social media. She had officially burned out.
SABAH KHODIR: And I started to say, like, I don’t want to hear anything to do with Fairmont anymore. I don’t want to hear about it. Forget it, just let it go.
NADEEN SHAKER: That euphoric ‘anything is possible’ moment was definitely over and many in the movement, including Sabah, were left to deal with the emotional aftermath. For some it was the slow burn of everything that got to them, for others it was just how it all came crumbling down. Everyone else was too depressed or scared or just too shocked to go back to organising.
NADINE ENAN: Sometimes like we would get overwhelmed, sometimes we didn’t have time for a certain case. Like in our own way, we started becoming our own system that’s failing people coming to us. And it’s not necessarily because we weren’t good feminists, just sometimes things slip through, or sometimes things are complicated.
NADEEN SHAKER: After the case had ran its course, the alleged rape video was nowhere to be found. Lawyers we spoke to suspect that the men, using their influence, were able to bury it. And that – the lack of legal evidence – was one reason that allowed the men to almost get away with their actions.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: But not all’s bad that ends bad. In another twist of fate, while authorities were looking for the alleged Fairmont rape video, they stumbled on another video that was equally disturbing and might be used to prosecute the alleged Fairmont rapists.
NADEEN SHAKER: The video, according to the Public Prosecutor, was of three men raping a woman in a resort in Egypt’s Northern Coast in 2015. But only two of men showed in the footage.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: On November 9th, 2021, in the last victory, an Egyptian court sentenced the men to 15 years and life imprisonment for the rape of the young woman along Egypt’s North Coast.
NADEEN SHAKER: The three men e were the same guys as those suspected of also being part of the Fairmont case.
SABAH KHODIR: I don’t think the movement is over. I think we have a lot of work that we’re still doing. I just think that now it can move on its own. You know, it has the power of people behind it. At the end of the day, it’s just changed me as a person. I view things very differently and the world’s opened itself up to me. And at the same time, I think, I understand – I mean, it showed me some type of evil that I never thought I’d encounter. But at the same time it showed me that I could survive that type of evil.
NADEEN SHAKER: Over the past two episodes, we’ve done our best to take you through what going through the movement was like for us. The moments of fear and uncertainty, but also the moments of celebration. From ABZ to the Fairmont case, we, alongside many other Egyptian women, followed the stories day by day. We heard voice notes of perpetrators. We read the vile words they’d say to women just like us. We saw the birth of Instagram pages working to dismantle the walls sexual assaulters hide behind – and saw those pages close sometimes too when it all became too much for them. Frankly, many times, it was also too much for us.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: But in the pain, triggers, and grief, some beautiful spaces opened up. The movement started discussions with those that never considered it previously, making allies out of male friends and colleagues who would’ve previously just been bystanders. The movement gave us the chance to reckon with our own experiences, and learn how to process and grow from them. And most importantly, the movement dismantled the idea that men can get away with anything in Egypt. Between ABZ and Fairmont were dozens of other cases of assault and rape that have been tried and prosecuted, with men going to prison for their actions. This continues to give us hope – hope that actions will always have consequences.
DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced and written by Nadeen Shaker and Zeina Dowidar, and edited by me, Dana Ballout, and Alex Atack. Fact checking by Deena Sabry, and sound design and mixing by Mohamad Khreizat. Bella Ibrahim is our marketing manager.
NADEEN SHAKER: A big thank you to everyone who made this story happen: Sabah Khodir, Noor Gohary, Nadine AbdelHamid, Farah Desouky, Zeina Amr, and Nadine Enan. Thank you very much.
DANA BALLOUT: We’ll be back next week with a new episode. Thank you for listening, and take care.