CAIRO (AP) — Bearing red flowers, Egypt's newly sworn-in president on Wednesday apologized in person to a woman who was sexually assaulted by a mob during weekend celebrations marking his inauguration.
State television showed a visibly moved Abdel-Fattah 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 central Tahrir square. The attacks were a grim reminder of one of Egyptian society's darkest sides and 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.
El-Sissi 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 not unacceptable, even if it is one case," said the president, who spoke a day after he ordered a crackdown on sexual harassment, which he described as an "alien phenomenon" in Egypt. He also called for the restoration of the "real and moral" values of the country's streets.
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.
Sexual harassment has long been a problem in Egypt, but assaults have increased dramatically in ferocity and in number over the three years since the ouster of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak, is the most common site of such attacks amid the large crowds. Women's groups complain that tough new laws have not done enough.
The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, said on Monday it had has arrested seven suspects ages 15 to 49 in connection with the sexual harassment that occurred during Sunday's celebrations. Three of those men 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 attack, saying the attackers first 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 bowl of hot water used by a tea maker at the square, sustaining burns on 25 percent of her body.
El-Sissi visited the mother on Wednesday.
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 the spiraling outbreak of 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 for al-Tahrir TV told the anchorwoman there had been several cases of sexual harassment, she laughed and said it's "because they are happy."