ًAzza Soliman was on holiday in August at Siwa oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert when she heard that several witnesses in a high-profile gang rape case had been arrested. “I almost had a stroke,” says the feminist and lawyer, who briefly represented the victim. “I knew something very strange was happening when I heard witnesses were being taken in.”

The horrific details of the Fairmont case, named after the luxurious Cairo hotel where the rape is said to have taken place, had galvanised public attention. A chilling account of the attack was revealed in July by internet activists on an Instagram account named Assault Police that had recently outed an alleged sexual molester from an elite background, leading to his arrest. The government had also passed a data law to protect the privacy of victims.

Egypt was experiencing its #MeToo moment: there was a sense that a new era was starting in which the state would go after sexual predators with unprecedented vigour whatever their social status.

Yet that brief wave of optimism has already faded. The arrest of the witnesses has underlined the difficulties activists in Egypt and across the region face in pushing for more rights for women in states that are both authoritarian and conservative.

Arab women have traditionally faced far more restrictions than men, but as increasing numbers of women graduate from universities — at a higher rate than males in many countries — they have battled to redefine their roles in society. The 2011 uprisings looked set to provide a window for a younger generation of emboldened female activists to press their case. But in the decade since progress has largely stagnated as the region has become more autocratic, with many forms of public debate muzzled.

The Fairmont case in Egypt illustrates the obstacles in the path of change. While the alleged rape took place in 2014, it was only last summer that activists went public with the story. The attackers had allegedly drugged the young woman at a party, filmed themselves raping her and circulated the footage among their friends.

The revelations prompted the state-appointed National Council for Women to encourage the victim to file an official complaint and witnesses to come forward. Days after publication of the Instagram post, the state prosecutor asked Interpol to arrest seven alleged perpetrators — most of them young men from wealthy and well connected families. Three were apprehended in Lebanon and deported back. There is still no date for a trial.

But the arrest of the six witnesses days later — all face charges and some were detained for months — was followed by smear stories and leaks of personal pictures from their phones. These events have dismayed activists and cast a shadow over hopes for a landmark trial.

Soliman believes the arrests will water down the case by undermining the credibility of the witnesses, who reportedly face debauchery and drug charges. She also fears it will inhibit others from coming forward to testify in sexual violence cases if they believe their private lives would face scrutiny. “This is frustrating for victims,” she says. “It will make it a struggle to convince young women to resort to the courts.”

Lobna Darwish, gender officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a civil society group which has itself faced a crackdown on its activities, says the arrests of the witnesses suggested that moves against the alleged perpetrators were more related to a determination to punish “immorality” rather than a commitment to protecting women’s safety.

To Egyptian feminists, the developments signal the limits of internet activism in a country where politics, the media and society remain tightly controlled and the threat of severe punishment hangs over attempts to agitate for change. Ten years after the revolution, which opened up a brief window for vigorous activism that was slammed shut by a new regime in 2013, social media remains the only available arena for women’s rights campaigners. But feminists say that platform is not enough to influence policy and to harness public opinion in favour of significant reforms.

The country’s brief democratic experiment ended in 2013 when the military ousted an elected but divisive Islamist president in a coup backed by millions of Egyptians. Under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the current president and former military man, the authorities have since cracked down harshly on dissent and curbed the space for most forms of independent initiatives seeking change. Feminist activism, beyond social media and the narrow limits permitted by the state, has been one casualty.

“There can be no real feminist movement without a public sphere,” says Mozn Hassan, director for Nazra for Feminist Studies, a civil society group. Hassan has been the target of a travel ban and asset freeze since 2016 as part of a government crackdown on NGOs and human rights groups receiving foreign funding.

The 2011 revolution invigorated the women’s rights movement, says Hassan. Women filled Tahrir Square during the protests that forced Hosni Mubarak to step down as president. They joined political parties and civil society groups and challenged conservative norms governing female behaviour.

But the closure of public space after 2013 curbed activism for women’s rights and shackled feminists’ ability to press for change, says Soliman. “The revolution gave rise to many initiatives and even girls from villages were speaking out,” says Soliman, the head of a legal aid centre for women who faces similar restrictions to Hassan. “But all this has stopped because space for activism has ended.”

In Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, women have made legal gains in recent decades even when faced with restrictive governments. Often, however, achievements that were the fruit of years of lobbying and activism have been presented as gifts from rulers keen to burnish their modernising credentials.

The practice reflects the top-down style of government in an autocratic region where popular mobilisation and open discussion are seen as destabilising threats, analysts say. Rulers who have periodically made concessions on women’s rights have always set the limit for change and controlled the debate.

“Historically, women’s issues have been manipulated by dictatorial states in Egypt and elsewhere in the region,” said Hoda Elsadda, a feminist professor of literature at Cairo University and a member of the panel which drafted the country’s 2014 constitution. “The purpose is to make the country look modern and part of the civilised club of nations. Also it has been a way [for regimes to signal] that they are better than their Islamist opponents.”

Women take pictures next to graffiti which reads ‘Leave!’ at Tahrir Square

In Tunisia, seen as the one of the more socially liberal countries and the only example of a successful democratic transition in the Arab world, the 2017 enactment of a law aimed at combating violence against women was described as “historic” by the UN. Activists complain that implementation has been slow but Bochra Belhaj Hmida, a lawyer and former MP, says: “The law would not have been at this comprehensive level if we did not have feminist members of parliament and a pluralistic democracy.” She continues to call for laws that would guarantee equal inheritance rights for women.

In Morocco, most of the credit for the reformist 2004 family law has gone to King Mohammed VI even if women’s groups had campaigned for the improvements for years, while “Suzanne’s laws” in Egypt facilitating no-fault divorce for women and extending their custody of children until age 15 were championed by Suzanne Mubarak, widow of the former president. Her intervention ensured the adoption of the changes in 2000 long demanded by feminists, and helped gain the endorsement of the conservative religious establishment.

Saudi Arabia presents the most extreme example of this approach: Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and de facto ruler, in 2017 reversed a much-criticised ban on women drivers, as part of reforms that have enhanced his popularity among Saudi youth. He also reined in the kingdom’s morality police and allowed women to travel without the agreement of a male guardian. But Prince Mohammed has also overseen withering crackdowns against all forms of criticism and activism, including jailing prominent women rights activists who campaigned to lift a decades-old ban on women driving just weeks before it was lifted.

One of the most prominent, Loujain al Hathloul, has been tortured in prison, according to her family. She was also smeared and convicted in a special courts that hears terrorism cases. Hathloul was sentenced in December to nearly six years in prison for allegedly trying to harm national security and advancing a foreign agenda. She was released last week after spending 1,000 days in prison.

After Egypt’s 2011 revolution, there followed a period of political fluidity with Islamists and their secular opponents jostling for power and the right to shape society in their image. A lively and unfettered media scene, especially on television, carried open discussions on the place of women in society. But as the Muslim Brotherhood and hardline Salafi Islamists won majorities in elections, many women feared a regression in legal rights.

But it was not just conservative religious parties floating reactionary amendments to family laws that gave the impetus for feminists to mobilise. As women became more visible in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the revolution, they also became targets of violence. Female protesters arrested in 2011 underwent humiliating virginity tests.

Later that year, the image of a female demonstrator lying on the ground, her black cloak open to reveal a blue bra while soldiers beat and kicked her, went viral. It sparked a march by thousands of women in downtown Cairo in a show of anger that is seen as unthinkable now. The identity of “blue-bra girl”, as she became known, was never revealed but she became an icon of the revolution.

Even more traumatising were the mass sex attacks in Tahrir Square which increased in frequency in late 2012. Hordes of men would encircle female protesters after dark to tear their clothes off and molest them in prolonged frenzies of terrifying violence. The assaults shocked society and sparked the emergence of groups like Tahrir Bodyguards and Operation Anti Sexual Harassment in which young volunteers policed demonstrations to rescue women under attack.

Elsadda argues that there was a brief period in 2013 “when we saw female victims of violence empowered to go on public television and actually tell their story, and from thereon it became an issue of public opinion. There were serious public debates for the first time and these were not the same old discussions blaming women.”

The activism of that tumultuous period, she argues, increased society’s awareness of the threats to women and paved the ground for the adoption of an article in the 2014 constitution under Sisi committing the state to combating violence against women. A law criminalising sexual harassment followed.

“We were always faced with the argument that our conservative society was the main obstacle for advancing women’s rights issues, but 2011 showed us that it is about politics,” says Elsadda. “When the political space was opened, it was possible to make some really large strides. The political space has now definitely narrowed, but the change on the level of consciousness and awareness has not been lost.”

Egypt’s #MeToo moment began in the summer of 2020 when Nadeen Ashraf, a 22-year-old student, set up the Assault Police Instagram account specifically to identify Ahmed Bassam Zaki over allegations he was a serial harasser from an elite background. A classmate of hers had initially posted a warning to young women about him then deleted it after she was threatened with a defamation complaint. But the first testimonies against him that Ashraf shared on the account triggered an avalanche of stories from other young women who attended school and university with Zaki.

“I was angry and frustrated that women all around me were accusing this man of sexual violence, and no one was hearing them,” Ashraf says. “I was very surprised that there was such a strong response.”

Zaki was sentenced in December to three years in prison for misusing social media and he will stand more trials in criminal courts on sexual assault charges. He has denied all charges against him. But it was his swift arrest and the quick move by judicial authorities to charge him and encourage witnesses to come forward that built up expectations for the Fairmont case when it was revealed by the Assault Police account. Ashraf was herself threatened by the alleged perpetrators and had to go offline for a few days until the victim filed her official complaint and legal measures started.

Ashraf says she is discouraged by the turn the Fairmont case had taken but hoped a trial will still result in punishment of the perpetrators. Assault Police continues to publicise cases of sexual violence and to raise issues such as marital rape which is not recognised in Egyptian law as well as by other Arab countries. “I see a lot of change within my generation,” says Ashraf. “But I am also aware that I’m in an [upper middle class] bubble. The big change will happen when we’re able to lobby and push for more legal reform.”

Despite the restrictions and setbacks, campaigners in Middle Eastern countries say they are determined to keep pushing for substantial improvements in women’s rights which will offer better protection against sexual harassment and abuse. In Egypt, continued revelations on Assault Police and other social media accounts are in some cases generating pressure on individuals accused of being the perpetrators.

“We don’t know if this pressure will continue and become institutionalised and systemic,” says Darwish. “But at the same time something has moved and I feel it cannot be stopped.”

Egypt’s feminists also point to a range of issues on which they would like to be able to influence policy, such as new legislation on family affairs that has yet to be presented to parliament, which some fear might roll back legal gains. There is also concern about the vague and moralistic charge of breaching “Egyptian family values” that has resulted in the imprisonment of women performers using apps like TikTok. For now, most debate on these issues is relegated to social media.

“Women’s associations have limited activities now because there is no funding,” says Soliman. “The asset freezes and travel bans have also had an impact on second generations of activists and inhibited some.

“But with all that’s happened there are still some gains, because more girls are speaking out about violence, and they are filing complaints against predatory professors and doctors and others.”