CAIRO — Accusations of sexual misconduct directed at two prominent human rights lawyers in Egypt — one of them a former presidential hopeful — have roiled the country’s beleaguered civil society, which is already under unrelenting pressure from authorities.
The allegations, directed at former presidential hopeful Khaled Ali and another lawyer, were made in a private email sent by a woman in October that has since been widely shared on social media. Many have cast it as part of the global #MeToo campaign against sexual assault and misconduct, while accusing the activist community of closing ranks to avoid embarrassment.
The woman, currently living in Europe, has declined to give media interviews and has not filed a complaint with authorities. The Associated Press does not publicly identify victims of sexual assault and is not naming the second lawyer because no formal complaint has been made against him.
In the email, the woman alleged that Ali invited her to his downtown Cairo office in 2015 after other employees had gone home. The woman, who had recently quit her job at the rights organization founded and led by Ali, said he offered her a beer before he left to shower next door. When he came back, he asked her personal questions about two of her past relationships, she said.
“I finish the beer and tell him I need to leave because I have an appointment in the morning,” she recounted in the email. “He tries to convince me to stay over and that it’s getting late. I tell him no, I prefer to go,” she wrote. She said she left without further incident.
She said the other lawyer, who specializes in women’s rights, had suggested she spend the night at his place after an evening of heavy drinking at a downtown bar with friends in 2014. She said she took him up on the offer because she was drunk, and that he raped her that night.
She said she has been in therapy to deal with the trauma, and that her email was meant as a warning to women employed by rights groups. Two of her friends, who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve her privacy, said she told them she decided to break her silence when she learned that Ali planned to run for president.
The lawyer denied the rape allegation in a phone interview with the AP, saying he had “consensual” sex with the woman. In the email, she acknowledged having consensual sex with him after the alleged rape.
Ali responded to the accusations leveled against himself in a Facebook post on Feb. 19, calling them “extremely shocking and surprising.” He said he had ordered his campaign and his Bread and Freedom party to investigate the allegations shortly after they surfaced and had refrained from commenting publicly until the investigation was complete.
The three-person panel of prominent rights figures cleared Ali of any wrongdoing but reprimanded him for mixing his personal life with his political and legal work. The accuser questioned the panel’s objectivity and refused to cooperate with it.
“The mere thought that she entertains such thoughts about me and wrote an email reflecting them leaves me with no choice but to offer her an apology for the pain she suffered,” he wrote. “Although the findings of the investigation are in my favor, I must still take some of the blame.”
Ali resigned from his leadership of the party, as well as the rights group he founded. Several telephone calls and messages to Ali seeking comment went unanswered.
Supporters applauded his response, calling it a rare show of accountability in a conservative society where sexual harassment is rampant and sex crimes are rarely acknowledged or prosecuted.
Others say his campaign dodged the allegations while trying to get him on the ballot. Ali declared his intention to run for president in November but quit in January, citing intimidation by authorities. The panel released a summary of its findings after he abandoned his run.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is widely expected to win re-election in the March 26-28 vote after several potential candidates withdrew or were arrested. The only other candidate to make the ballot is a little-known politician who supports el-Sissi.
Egypt’s civil society, which played a key role in the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, has been the target of a sweeping crackdown since el-Sissi led the military overthrow of an elected Islamist president in 2013.
Several prominent activists have been arrested, while others have been banned from travel or had their assets frozen. Their organizations have been subject to draconian restrictions, and pro-government media routinely portray them as depraved agents of hostile foreign powers.
But critics within the rights community say none of that excuses the response to the allegations against Ali.
The “Girls’ Revolution,” a women’s rights group, issued a statement saying Ali’s supporters had not acted quickly enough.
“Although the leadership of the party was informed of the email in November, the campaign went on despite the suspected abuse,” it said.
More than 100 activists, including many women, signed a declaration saying the panel, which was appointed in December, “mirrored the state’s criminal justice system, complete with its deficiencies (and) lack of safety for those who complain.”
It said the handling of the case, like that of allegations against other public figures, was dominated by the “spirit of the clique” — a desire to shield prominent individuals from criticism and protect the international image of civil society groups, many of which received support from abroad before the latest crackdown.
Several prominent women’s rights activists declined to comment on the case.
But Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian writer and activist based in New York, said the response from Ali’s supporters shows that “their revolution is not genuine because the essence of the things we are struggling against remain inside them.”
“The woman who wrote the email deserves much more justice than she has received so far,” she said.