The arrest of Brazilian doctor Victor Sorrentino in Egypt on Sunday (30) was a very exceptional episode in the country. There are few cases, according to human rights activists, in which local authorities decide to investigate cases of harassment – common there.
“His arrest is not linked to an official anti-harassment campaign, nor motivated by the fact that he is a foreigner,” explains Hala Mostafa, one of the leaders of the Shoft Taharosh organization (I saw harassment, in Egyptian Arabic). She closely followed the case, which took place in Luxor, in the south of the country.
The episode, according to Mostafa, was the result of social media campaigns. After activists in Brazil and Egypt circulated information on platforms like Twitter, Sorrentino’s case has become one of the main hot topics in this Mediterranean country. The messages were accompanied by a hashtag saying, in Arabic, “hold the Brazilian stalker to account”. TV programs followed the case with harsh words against Sorrentino.
At that point, Mostafa says, the government was forced to react. Hence the arrest of the Brazilian and the announcements made by the authorities.
Egyptians began to mobilize after the doctor posted on Instagram – a platform on which he has nearly a million followers – a video in which he offends a papyrus seller. It is possible to see in the images, for example, Sorrentino asking him in Portuguese: “You really like hard stuff, don’t you?” The doctor also asks, “Long is good too, isn’t it?” The long papyrus ”. Not understanding, she smiles and nods.
On Sunday, the Egyptian Interior Ministry announced the detention of a “foreigner”, without naming Sorrentino by name – Folha confirmed that it was the Brazilian. In the statement, the authorities said the case had been referred to the prosecution. Also on Monday afternoon (31) the Egyptian ministry’s announcement was posted at the top of the agency’s official Twitter profile, indicating the symbolic importance of this episode to the government.
It was not clear if Sorrentino remained in detention. On the one hand, he published a photo inside a plane on Sunday, which was understood as proof that he was already returning to Brazil. The image was accompanied by a caption in which the doctor claimed that his trip to Egypt had been “an immersion without limits”. “How good it is to make room for new versions of ourselves, for new connections, to review and transcend values, virtues, wisdom,” he writes.
On the other hand, the Egyptian prosecutor’s office released a memo on Monday evening reiterating its call for Sorrentino’s continued detention and detailing the indictment. According to the text, the Brazilian offended his wife on the 24th and was arrested on his way to Cairo, while trying to flee the country. This could explain the photo on the plane, possibly taken in transit.
Prosecutors say Sorrentino used the internet to violate Egyptian family values and the seller’s privacy. The ministry’s note also indicates that investigations will continue on Tuesday. If convicted of sexual harassment, the sentence can range from six months to five years in prison.
With all the attention paid to the case, an old video returned to circulate in which President Jair Bolsonaro – at the time, a Member of Parliament – claimed that Sorrentino was “more than a virtual brother, a brother in uniform and in faith ”. “Together we will change Brazil,” he said. Interviews in which Sorrentino defended hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19 were also circulating again. The drug is however considered ineffective in this case and not recommended by the WHO (World Health Organization).
Sexual harassment is one of the most pressing social issues in Egypt. According to a 2013 UN survey, 99.3% of women in the country say they have experienced situations such as being chased in the streets, hearing obscenities and being raped. This number helps contextualize the popular reaction to the Sorrentino affair, especially on social media. The same survey heard from men, and 73% of them justified the harassment due to the clothes of their victims, which they considered less than decent.
The work of NGOs like Shoft Taharosh in Mostafa is increasingly difficult. The Egyptian government cracked down on human rights organizations. “We’re backing up,” she said. The government often invokes threats to public safety to prevent these groups from acting. So people like Mostafa take a risk by staying active.
In some ways, authorities seem more concerned with controlling civil society movements than ensuring the safety of women, the activists say. In addition to the rare arrests, it is even rarer for a man to be convicted of harassment. He is generally cowardly. Mostafa cites, for example, a recent case of gang rape – even filmed – in which no one was punished.
When the activist spoke to the report by phone, it was still unclear whether Sorrentino was still in detention. But the Egyptian activist tried to guess the outcome of the story: “He’s a foreigner. So he’s even more likely to get out, especially if the embassy gets involved. He must be released ”.