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Egyptian leader visits assault victim

Sissi apologizes, vows to combat sexual violence

CAIRO — Bearing red flowers, Egypt’s newly sworn-in president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, apologized in person Wednesday 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.

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Activists welcomed Sissi’s gesture 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 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,’’ 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. The assaults coincided with Sissi’s 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 unusual for any senior official, let alone the president, to offer a public apology. 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.

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 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 decisive measures to combat the crime.

‘‘I tell the judiciary that our honor is being violated on the streets, and that is not right,” he said. “It is unacceptable, even if it is one case.’

Presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi said 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 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 said. ‘‘It’s important that the words be translated into policies, actions, mechanisms, and fair and transparent trials.’’

Other activists were skeptical of Sissi’s commitment to the issue, recalling the military’s ‘‘virginity tests’’ on a group of women protesters detained in 2011. 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,’’ activist Mona Eltahawy wrote on her Twitter account.

The Interior Ministry said on Monday it has arrested seven suspects ages 15 to 49 in connection with Sunday’s assaults. 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.

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