Her screams were not drowned out by the clamor of the crazed mob of nearly 200 men around her. An endless number of hands reached toward the woman in the red shirt in an assault scene that lasted less than 15 minutes, but felt more like an hour.
She was pushed by the sea of men for about a block into a side street from Tahrir Square. Many of the men were trying to break up the frenzy, but it was impossible to tell who was helping and who was assaulting. Pushed against the wall, the unknown woman’s head finally disappeared. Her screams grew fainter, then stopped. Her slender tall frame had clearly given way. She apparently had passed out. The helping hands finally splashed the attackers with bottles of water to chase them away.
The assault late on Tuesday was witnessed by an Associated Press reporter who was almost overwhelmed by the crowd herself and had to be pulled to safety by men who ferried her out of the melee in an open Jeep.
Reports of assaults on women in Tahrir, the epicenter of the uprising that forced former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down last year, have been on the rise with a new round of mass protests to denounce a mixed verdict against the ousted leader and his sons in a trial last week.
The late Tuesday assault was the last straw for many. Protesters and activists met on Wednesday to organize a campaign to prevent sexual harassment in the square. They recognize it is part of a bigger social problem that has largely gone unpunished in Egypt. However, the phenomenon is trampling on their dream of creating in Tahrir a micro-model of a state that respects civil liberties and civic responsibility, which they had hoped would emerge after Mubarak’s ouster.
“Enough is enough,” said Abdel-Fatah Mahmoud, a 22-year-old engineering student, who met on Wednesday with friends to organize patrols of the square in an effort to deter attacks against women. “It has gone overboard. No matter what is behind this, it is unacceptable. It shouldn’t be happening on our streets, let alone Tahrir.”
No official numbers exist for attacks on women in the square because police do not go near the area, and women rarely report such incidents. However, activists and protesters have reported a number of particularly violent assaults on women in the past week. Many suspect such assaults are organized by opponents of the protests to weaken the spirit of the protesters and drive people away.
Mahmoud said two of his female friends were cornered on Monday and pushed into a small passageway by a group of men in the same area where the woman in the red shirt was assaulted. One was groped while the other was seriously assaulted, Mahmoud said, refusing to divulge specifics other than to insist she wasn’t raped.
Mona Seif, a well-known activist who has been trying to promote awareness about the problem, said on Wednesday she was told about three different incidents in the past five days, including two that were violent. In one incident, the attackers ripped the woman’s clothes off and trampled on her companions, she said.
Women, who participated in the 18-day uprising that ended with Mubarak’s ouster on Feb. 11 last year as leading activists, protesters, medics and even fighters to ward off attacks by security agents or affiliated thugs on Tahrir, have found themselves facing the same groping and assaults that have long plagued Egypt’s streets during subsequent protests in the square.