CAIRO (AP) — Bearing red flowers, Egypt's newly sworn-in president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on Wednesday apologized in person to a woman who was sexually assaulted by a mob during weekend celebrations marking his inauguration, a gesture that is likely to bolster the career soldier's popularity.
Sexual harassment has long been a problem in Egypt, but assaults have increased dramatically both in frequency and ferocity in the three years since the ouster of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Activists welcomed the gesture by el-Sissi, but said it would prove empty if not followed up by concrete steps toward preventing such acts and punishing perpetrators.
State television showed a visibly moved el-Sissi visiting the woman in a Cairo hospital. "I have come to tell you and every Egyptian woman that I am sorry. I am apologizing to every Egyptian woman," el-Sissi, a former military chief who ousted the country's first elected president nearly a year ago, said as he stood by the woman's bed.
"Don't be upset," he told her. Several women were assaulted during Sunday's inaugural festivities in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 revolt that toppled Mubarak, which has also seen numerous mob sexual assaults during demonstrations held there since.
Sunday's assaults coincided with el-Sissi starring in carefully choreographed ceremonies held at two of the capital's most opulent presidential palaces and attended by hundreds of local and foreign dignitaries.
It is highly unusual for any senior official, let alone the president, to offer a public apology. El-Sissi, already seen by many Egyptians as a strong leader who can restore stability after three years of unrest, may win over even more supporters by taking a stand on the issue of sexual harassment and violence.
El-Sissi has advocated for a greater public role for women and praised their contribution to society and the economy. He pledged in his Sunday inauguration speech to "do everything I can" to ensure that women are fairly represented in the next parliament and in the executive branch.
On Wednesday, he said it was unacceptable for sexual assaults to take place in Egypt and vowed to take "very decisive measures" to combat the crime. "I tell the judiciary that our honor is being violated on the streets and that is not right. It is unacceptable, even if it is one case," said the president.
Presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi meanwhile said el-Sissi has instructed Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab to set up a ministerial committee to look into the problem and devise a national strategy to combat it.
Azza Kamel, founder of an anti-harassment group, welcomed el-Sissi's hospital visit but said she and other women's activists are waiting for action. "We are waiting to see what measures the state will take and then we can judge," she told The Associated Press. "It's important that the words be translated into policies, actions, mechanisms and fair and transparent trials."
Other activists were skeptical of el-Sissi's commitment to the issue, recalling the military's "virginity tests" on a group of women protesters detained in 2011. El-Sissi, who was the chief of military intelligence at the time, was quoted then as saying the tests were necessary to head off possible allegations that the women were sexually assaulted by soldiers.
"When Sisi & Egyptian military issue clear apology for "VirginityTests," I'll take his apology to Tahrir survivor seriously," prominent activist Mona Eltahawy wrote on her Twitter account. The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, said on Monday it has arrested seven suspects ages 15 to 49 in connection with Sunday's events. Three have been charged with sexual assault under the threat of force and attempted rape, according to a statement issued by the nation's chief prosecutor, Hesham Barakat.
The statement also gave graphic details of the assault, saying the attackers formed a circle around a woman and her teenage daughter, stripped the mother of her clothes and assaulted her. Later, the mother fell on a pot of hot water used by a tea maker, sustaining burns on 25 percent of her body. It was not immediately clear whether her daughter was also assaulted.
Barakat's office said it was investigating allegations that some hospitals refused to admit the woman for treatment, something that it said had contributed to the worsening of her condition. Last week, authorities issued a decree declaring sexual harassment a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. The decree amended Egypt's current laws on abuse, which did not criminalize sexual harassment and only vaguely referred to such offenses as "indecent assault."
On Monday, 29 women's rights groups released a joint statement accusing the government of failing do enough to address mob attacks on women and calling for a "comprehensive national strategy" to stop the violence. They said they had documented more than 250 cases of "mass sexual rape and mass sexual assaults" from November 2012 to January 2014.
The uproar over Sunday's attacks was stoked by comments by a TV anchorwoman during a live report from a correspondent covering the Tahrir celebrations. When the correspondent told the anchorwoman there had been several cases of sexual harassment, she laughed and said it's "because they are happy."
Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report.