CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's outgoing president on Thursday decreed sexual harassment a crime punishable by up to five years in prison, a much-anticipated move toward combating the abuse deeply rooted in this Mideast country.
The decree was among several last-minute decisions by President Adly Mansour who is to hand over power on Sunday to president-elect, Egypt's former military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
In another significant decision, Mansour issued a decree on parliamentary elections and the division of parliament seats between independent candidates and political parties ahead of the upcoming national balloting, expected in a few months. The distribution of seats is important since the decree gives three quarters of the seats to independent candidates, thus weakening political parties — and tips the balance of power in favor of the president.
The anti-sexual harassment decree amends the country's current laws, which did not criminalize sexual harassment and only vaguely referred to such offenses as indecent assault.
In Egypt, violence against women in public space has grown over the past three years of turmoil since the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The decree says harassers face between six months to five years in prison, with harsher sentences reserved for offenders holding a position of power over their victims, like being a woman's superior at work or being armed with a weapon.
The decree also defines a sexual harasser as a person seeking to achieve "an interest of a sexual nature," according to presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi. Offenders would be prosecuted whether they commit harassment in public or in private, and repeat offenders would see their sentences doubled, Badawi said.
Along with the maximum five-year sentence, offenders would be fined up to 5,000 Egyptian pounds, or about $714, with the maximum fine reserved for harassers who use a weapon or pressure.
The decree acts as an amendment to existing laws, which may disappoint some women's rights activists who have demanded completely new legislation on the issue.
Last year, a joint report by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, Egypt's Demographic Center and the National Planning Institute found that more than 99 percent of hundreds of women surveyed in seven of the country's 27 provinces reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, ranging from minor harassment to rape.
The breakdown in the police force in the wake of the 2011 uprising that ousted Mubarak left the streets in Egypt even more unsafe for women. Over the past three years, including under the year-long rule of Mubarak's successor, Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, there have also been multiple mass sexual assaults on women during political protests.
Initiatives to counter harassment also multiplied. Volunteer groups started escorting women, especially during political gatherings. Activists offered self-defense classes for women and social networking sites launched "name and shame" campaigns.
However, many say harassment will continue as long as Egypt's conservative Muslim society discriminates against women, accusing them of dressing immodestly and mixing with men in public and thus provoking harassment.
On the issue of parliament seats, the decree allocates 77 percent of seats to independent candidates while only 23 percent will go to political parties' lists. Members of political parties can still run in the elections as independents, but the outcome would presumably be a fragmented house.
Mansour on Thursday also imposed a temporary tax, effective over the next three years, on those whose income exceeds 1 million Egyptian pounds ($142,857).
The measure, meant to help with the budget deficit, gave the high-income citizens the option to divert the funds that would be taxed to infrastructure projects.
In another development, an appeals court in Beni Suef province south of Cairo on Thursday upheld a five-year sentence for an author convicted on charges of contempt of religion, a court official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to media.
The court confirmed the original sentence for Karam Saber, who was tried and sentenced in absentia last year over his 2010 novel "Where is God." After the initial sentencing, Saber turned himself in and received the same sentence in a retrial, in accordance with Egyptian law. He then appealed and was free on bail pending Thursday's decision.
Amnesty International had called for Saber's immediate release, saying he is punished for "exercising his right to freedom of expression."