Harassment or harmless flirting? Egypt viral video sparks debate

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Egyptian police women stand by as women protest against sexual harasment in front of the Opera House in the capital Cairo. (File photo / AFP)
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Menna Gubran took the short video of him approaching her and posted it online, igniting an online debate in which many people, including women, took Soliman’s side. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)
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Mahmoud Soliman has been given the media spotlight since the video of him making an advance on Menna Gubran in a Cairo suburb went viral this month. (Screengrab courtesy of social media)
Updated 27 August 2018

Harassment or harmless flirting? Egypt viral video sparks debate

LONDON: It’s the story that has everyone talking. Did Mahmoud Soliman’s behavior toward Menna Gubran amount to harassment or was it merely harmless flirting? And was she wrong to film his advances and post the video online?
Sexual harassment is no trivial matter in Egypt, with an international poll last year describing Cairo as the world’s most dangerous mega-city for women. In fact, the practice has been illegal since 2014 and carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. However, the law is rarely enforced, not least because it fails to define the different forms sexual harassment can take.
The consequence is the sort of argument now raging over the Soliman-Gubran encounter. Opinion is divided, with some branding Soliman a “harasser” and others appearing to blame Gubran for the way she dressed, even though she does not appear in the video she filmed.
“Frankly, what happened has confused me,” said student Laila Elazhary, 23. “I can’t figure out what was right and what was wrong.”

Another woman, who declined to give her name, offered a robust defense of Soliman. “He is our friend and we have known him for years. He comes from a good family, and what happened was a normal and decent way of approaching and introducing himself to a woman. What is the big fuss about?” she asked.
Others took a more tongue-in-cheek view.
“If ladies keep using videos to keep guys introducing themselves at bay then they won’t find potential husbands. They are surely hurting only themselves,” said accountant Akram Mohamed, 43, while actor Mohamed Kamel joked that the people involved in the video were now shooting an advertisement and would soon be announcing a production deal.
“We are really in the era of nonsense,” he added.
Needless to say, the two principal characters in the story give different accounts of what happened.
Gubran claimed she was “stalked” by Soliman, who circled her in his car and made comments after she refused an invitation to go for coffee with him in Cairo. He desisted only when she started filming him with her mobile phone, she said.
Soliman, however, said he simply “apologized and left” after Gubran declined his invitation and denied “bothering” her.
Gubran posted her video on Facebook and ignited a heated debate online.

The law against sexual harassment in Egypt was introduced largely because of the treatment women suffered — from groping to beatings and sexual assault — during the mass protests of the 2011 uprising.
But if the law offers little clarity, there is less uncertainty among commentators on social media, prompting the question: If laws are ineffective, could pressure from social media encourage changes in behavior?
Physiology professor Sawsan Mohamed of Zaqaziq University believes it can — but not always in the desired way.
“Social media are transforming our patterns and norms toward an unknown destination. In the past few years I’ve seen my students transforming from shy to aggressive. Social media platforms have surely helped to alter characters, habits and the culture through instant and continuous feeds. We can’t predict where this will lead our culture,” she said.
“What used to happen, and take months and years to be replicated and become trendy, can now happen overnight through one simple post,” said Shady Azmy, a digital marketing expert based in Cairo. “The impact gets distributed once major influencers and celebrities join the wave.”
Professor Damian Radcliffe of the University of Oregon has studied the effects of social media on the Middle East for almost a decade.

“This is a great example of the complexities of social media. On the one hand it can be a valuable tool for empowerment, entertainment and sharing legitimate information. On the other, it can also be used to promote rumors and inaccuracies as well as amplifying behaviors and attitudes which many people find objectionable. All of these different responses can be seen at play here.”
Radcliffe believes the threat of exposure or ridicule through “naming and shaming” on social media could act as a driver of change in social norms.
“Hopefully it will,” he added. “But we also need to be alive to the fact that people may be incorrectly ‘shamed’ online, especially if they have a common name, and that vendettas and trolling may also play out. Mistakes can and do happen. Sometimes that is accidental. Sometimes it’s more nefarious.
“Social media may help trigger discussions (on what constitutes sexual harassment), but any definition is likely to need — and require — offline as well as online discussion. Social networks can help provoke debate and challenge accepted norms and, in many cases, these important discussions can be triggered by ordinary citizens.
“The court of public opinion should not necessarily act as judge and jury, but in the social media age there is a risk that this can happen.”


Lebanon’s journalists suffer abuse, threats covering unrest

Updated 07 December 2019

Lebanon’s journalists suffer abuse, threats covering unrest

  • The deteriorating situation for journalists in Lebanon comes despite its decades-old reputation for being an island of free press in the Arab world

BEIRUT: Lebanese journalists are facing threats and wide-ranging harassment in their work — including verbal insults and physical attacks, even death threats — while reporting on nearly 50 days of anti-government protests, despite Lebanon’s reputation as a haven for free speech in a troubled region.
Nationwide demonstrations erupted on Oct. 17 over a plunging economy. They quickly grew into calls for sweeping aside Lebanon’s entire ruling elite. Local media outlets — some of which represent the sectarian interests protesters are looking to overthrow — are now largely seen as pro- or anti-protests, with some journalists feeling pressured to leave their workplaces over disagreements about media coverage.
The deteriorating situation for journalists in Lebanon comes despite its decades-old reputation for being an island of free press in the Arab world. Amid Lebanon’s divided politics, media staff have usually had wide range to freely express their opinions, unlike in other countries in the region where the state stifles the media.
The acts of harassment began early in the protests. MTV television reporter Nawal Berry was attacked in central Beirut in the first days of the demonstrations by supporters of the militant group Hezbollah and its allies. They smashed the camera, robbed the microphone she was holding, spat on her and kicked her in the leg.
“How is it possible that a journalist today goes to report and gets subjected to beating and humiliation? Where are we? Lebanon is the country of freedoms and democracy,” Berry said.
Outlets like MTV are widely seen as backing protesters’ demands that Lebanon’s sectarian political system be completely overturned to end decades of corruption and mismanagement.
Rival TV stations and newspapers portray the unrest — which led to the Cabinet’s resignation over a month ago — as playing into the hands of alleged plots to undermine Hezbollah and its allies. Many of those outlets are run by Hezbollah, President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and the Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. These media regularly blast protesters for closing roads and using other civil disobedience tactics, describing them as “bandits.”
For Berry, the media environment worsened as the unrest continued. On the night of Nov. 24, while she was covering clashes between protesters and Hezbollah and Amal supporters on a central road in Beirut, supporters of the Shiite groups chased her into a building. She hid there until police came and escorted her out.
“I was doing my job and will continue to do so. I have passed through worse periods and was able to overcome them,” said Berry, who added she is taking a short break from working because of what she passed through recently.
Hezbollah supporters also targeted Dima Sadek, who resigned last month as an anchorwoman at LBC TV. She blamed Hezbollah supporters for robbing her smartphone while she was filming protests, and said the harassment was followed by insulting and threatening phone calls to her mother, who suffered a stroke as a result of the stress.
“I have taken a decision (to be part of the protests) and I am following it. I have been waiting for this moment all my life and I have always been against the political, sectarian and corrupt system in Lebanon,” said Sadek, a harsh critic of Hezbollah, adding that she has been subjected to cyberbullying for the past four years.
“I know very well that this will have repercussions on my personal and professional life. I will go to the end no matter what the price is,” Sadek said shortly after taking part in a demonstration in central Beirut.
Protesters have also targeted journalists reporting with what are seen as pro-government outlets. OTV station workers briefly removed their logos from equipment while covering on the demonstrations to avoid verbal and physical abuse. The station is run by supporters of Aoun’s FPM.
“The protest movement has turned our lives upside down,” said OTV journalist Rima Hamdan, who during one of her reports slapped a man on his hand after he pointed his middle finger at her. She said the station’s logo “is our identity even though sometimes we had to remove it for our own safety.”
Television reporters with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar and Amal’s NBN channels were also attacked in a town near Beirut, when they were covering the closure of the highway linking the capital city with southern Lebanon by protesters. In a video, an NBN correspondent is seen being attacked, while troops and policemen stand nearby without intervening.
“This happens a lot in Lebanon because some media organizations are politicized. No one sees media organizations as they are but sees them as representing the political group that owns them,” said Ayman Mhanna, director of the Beirut-based media watchdog group SKeyes.
“The biggest problem regarding these violations is that there is no punishment,” Mhanna said. Authorities usually fail to act even when they identify those behind attacks on journalists, he added.
Coverage of the protests also led to several journalists resigning from one of Lebanon’s most prominent newspapers, Al-Akhbar, which is seen as close to Hezbollah, and the pan-Arab TV station Al-Mayadeen, which aligns closely with the policies of Iran, Syria and Venezuela.
Joy Slim, who quit as culture writer at Al-Akhbar after more than five years, said she did so after being “disappointed” with the daily’s coverage of the demonstrations. She released a video widely circulated on social media that ridiculed those who accuse the protesters of being American agents.
Sami Kleib, a prominent Lebanese journalist with a wide following around the Middle East, resigned from Al-Mayadeen last month. He said the reason behind his move was that he was “closer to the people than the authorities.”
“The Lebanese media is similar to politics in Lebanon where there is division between two axes: One that supports the idea of conspiracy theory, and another that fully backs the protest movement with its advantages and disadvantages,” Kleib said.