LONDON – 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 Sudanese women, 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 Mohammed 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 20s and 30s. 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 then-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-Sissi 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 Aug. 16, 2013, in the aftermath of clashes and demonstrations in support of Morsi, Al-Tawheed Mosque was raided by military forces. More than 20 women were sexually assaulted by officers from the Special Forces Unit, affiliated with the Central Security Forces, who grabbed their breasts. According to a survivor interviewed by Nazra for the journal Feminist Studies, officers said they were “whores who came here to be f——-.”
The security forces were able to tap into a long-standing culture of treating lone women as acceptable targets for harassment. A 2013 survey by the United Nations found that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women said they had been sexually harassed and that 91 percent felt insecure in the street. A 2002 U.N. study found that 47 percent of female homicides in Egypt were so-called honor killings.
Egypt, for reasons hard to explain, seems to be the worst culprit, with North Africa more generally not far behind. Relatively liberal Morocco, for example, still lacks any specific criminal offense for domestic violence and only recently removed a clause allowing a rapist to escape prosecution if he married the victim. When two young women called the police last year after men harassed them over the length of their skirts, the women were arrested, tried for “public obscenity” and acquitted after a public outcry.
What happened in Cologne will be used to confirm prejudices. It will support the view that Muslim immigrants simply cannot be accommodated in European societies. That is untrue; vast numbers have been successfully integrated. Too many others have not and to reach them is difficult and in the short term expensive. What Cologne underlines is the enormity of the task that Germany and other countries will face in integrating their new migrants from the Middle East.
Language teaching and courses in the laws and customs of the host country, as well as vocational training, need to be generous and often mandatory to turn the tide of refugees that have reached Germany from a problem into a resource, capable of filling Germany’s looming demographic deficit. The North African petty criminals around Cologne station are evidence of the inadequacy of previous policies. And if, as is surely probable, recent refugees were also involved, they point to the high cost continued failure would have.
Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times and the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times. He is based in London.