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Germany Has a North African Problem

Germany is reeling from the news, hidden for several days because of its political sensitivity, that as many as 90 women were sexually assaulted by a crowd of young men of Middle Eastern appearance outside Cologne Cathedral on New Year’s Eve. This is, as the local police chief put it, a “whole new dimension of crime” for Germans to confront. No woman in North Africa, however, would be the least bit shocked.

There is a lot we still don’t know about the Cologne attacks, including whether they were organized ahead of time on social media and whether the actual culprits were refugees, petty criminals who have been plying the area around Cologne’s train station for years, or both. All the police have said is that the complaints were made, in one case of rape, and that the men were aged 18 to 35, many of them drunk and of “Arab or North African” origin.

No matter what the details, this will be political dynamite for Chancellor Angela Merkel. The new mayor of Cologne, who was stabbed in the neck during her election campaign over her support for Merkel’s pro-refugee policies, is already being hounded on social media for absurdly advising women to keep “an arm’s length” from strange men during the city’s carnival season next month.

Yet this kind of event shouldn’t come as a surprise in a year when more than a million asylum seekers arrived in Germany, many from across the Middle East.

Consider Syria. During the war, rape has been used as a weapon. Women who have lost or left behind their husbands and brothers as they flee the country have been subject to systematic abuse by landlords, employers and gangs of other refugees. Human-rights organizations had already been reporting sexual abuse in Germany’s makeshift centers for asylum seekers. The situation for Sudanesewomen, following that country’s civil war, is similar.

In North Africa, it doesn’t require a war for sexual abuse to become routine. Some of the anecdotal stories told by victims of the Cologne attacks are strongly reminiscent of what women in Cairo have suffered over the past few years.

During the 2013 protests that preceded a coup against former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, for example, 101 sexual assaults (including at least three of rape) were reported among the crowds. These, by the way, were the supposedly secular crowds, not the Muslim Brotherhood protests that followed Morsi’s removal. Here’s what would happen, according to a detailed study by the Worldwide Movement for Human Rights, a nonprofit umbrella for 178 organizations:

According to survivors and witnesses, these attacks tend to form a clear pattern. Attacks are perpetrated by groups of men who single out one or two women and separate them from the crowd by forming a circle around them. The men are mainly in their twenties and thirties. The survivors are groped by the mob and dragged violently to different locations. Sometimes their clothes are removed. Many survivors report members of the group saying, “Do not be afraid, I’m protecting you”, while they are being attacked. Attacks last from a few minutes to more than an hour. Several cases of rape have been reported and some survivors have required urgent medical treatment.

Security forces under former President Hosni Mubarak used it as a tool to dissuade women from taking part in public protests. Although the government has now legislated to criminalize sexual harassment, the old ways have resumed since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power. According to the same study:

Under the current regime, there have also been several reports of sexual violence against women protesters by the police and security forces. On 16 August 2013, in the


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